“Is” vs. “Are”: What’s The Difference?

The words is and are are forms of the verb be, the most commonly used verb in English. Because they’re used so frequently, it’s important to know the grammatical and functional difference.

In this article, we’ll explain the difference between is and are, show how to use them properly in sentences, and point out some tricky situations that may lead to confusion about which word is the correct choice.

Quick summary

Is and are are both forms of the verb be. Is is the third person singular present tense form. Are is the present tense form used with the second person singular and all plurals. The subject of a sentence determines whether is or are should be used. For example, is is used with the pronouns he, she, and it; are is used with the pronouns you and they.

When to use is or are

The words is and are are forms of the irregular verb be. Is is the third person singular present tense form. Are is the second person singular and the first, second, and third person plural present tense form.

Verbs are typically considered to be irregular verbs if their past tense form and/or past participle are not formed by adding -ed or -d to the end of their root form. This is the case with be, as its past tense forms are was/were and its past participle is been.

Be is an especially odd case of an irregular verb as it changes considerably when conjugated into its different forms (conjugation involves changes based on the subject and tense of the sentence). The verb be is conjugated as follows:

  • be: root/infinitive
    Example: I’d like to be helpful.
  • am: first person singular present tense
    Example: I am helpful.
  • is: third person singular present tense
    Example: She is helpful, and he is, too.
  • are: second person singular, all plurals present tense
    Example: They are both helpful.
  • was: first and third person singular past tense
    Example: He was helpful yesterday.
  • were: second person singular and all plurals past tense
    Example: They were both helpful yesterday.
  • been: past participle
    Example: She has been helpful, and they have been helpful, too.
  • being: present participle and gerund
    Example: You are being helpful. (present participle)

If you’re confused about the past tense forms of be, check out our guide to the difference between was vs. were.

Back to the present tense. The word is is a present tense verb used with a third person singular subject, which typically includes every noun/pronoun that isn’t the pronoun I or you.

For example:

  • The house is old.
  • She is a carpenter.

The word are is a present tense verb used with a second person singular subject or any plural subject. For example:

  • You are my best friend.
  • Gorillas are intelligent animals.

Are is always used with the pronoun they, regardless of whether it’s used as a plural or singular pronoun.

Sentences that use the pronoun you can be confusing, since both the singular and plural you use are. In these cases, you’ll need to rely on context to determine whether the word you is singular or plural. For example:

  • You are a hard worker. (You here is singular—indicated by the singular a hard worker.)
  • You are the first guests to arrive. (You here is plural—indicated by the plural guests.)

As with all other verbs, you need to follow subject-verb agreement when using the forms is and are. You’ll need to be careful when dealing with confusing sentences that use collective verbs, units of measurement, names of diseases, or other tricky parts of speech. For example:

  • The colony of ants is underground. (The verb is agrees with the subject, the collective noun colony.)
  • Three hundred years is a long time. (The verb is agrees with the subject Three hundred years because it is considered a period of time, rather than a plural quantity of something.)
  • Shingles is a disease that affects many people. (The verb is agrees with the subject Shingles, which is treated as singular even though it sounds like a plural noun.)

You can learn about many more confusing instances of subject-verb agreement—and how to handle them—right here.

there is vs. there are

In the phrases there is and there are, the word there serves as a pronoun that introduces a sentence or clause in which the verb comes before its subject or has no complement. Whether is or are should be used is determined by the noun, pronoun, or noun phrase that follows—specifically whether it is singular or plural.

For example:

  • There is a fly in my soup.
  • There are several flies in my soup.

Because fly is singular, is is used. Because several flies is plural, are is used.

Here’s a tip: if you’re confused about whether you should use is or are after there, swap there with the noun or noun phrase that follows the verb. Seeing the sentences in traditional subject-verb order can help to clarify what form should be used. For example:

  • A fly is in my soup.
  • Several flies are in my soup.

Examples of is and are used in a sentence

Let’s look at some examples—including some tricky ones—that show the different ways that we use is and are in sentences.

  • Sally is five years old.
  • Ben and Jerry are ice cream legends.
  • Cats is my favorite musical.
  • That box of chocolates is empty.
  • The rules by which the game is meant to be conducted are not written down.
  • Each quest to search for lost artifacts is more exciting than the last.
  • The deadly bacteria are sealed in an airtight container.
  • Mathematics is my favorite subject.

See how much you have learned with our quiz

To be or not to be a pro at using is or are, that is the question you can answer by taking our quiz on these two forms of the verb be. You may surprise yourself with what you’ve learned!

What should you say: "It is I" or "It's me"?

Previous "Smelled" vs. "Smelt": How To Sniff Out The Difference Next Why Capitalizing "Native American" Matters