The Distributive Plural
When each part of a plural subject possesses something individually, the thing possessed must generally be in the plural as well. For example:
The two women blew their noses.
Each woman possesses one nose, so, logically, two women possess two noses. Some usage experts call this type of plural “the distributive plural” (Quirk et al. 768).
The Distributive Singular
But in several cases, the thing possessed should be in the singular.
To Indicate Joint Possession
For example, use the singular when two people possess something jointly:
While traveling together, the two women got lost and consulted their map.
To Convey Universal, Abstract, and Figurative Ideas
Wilson Follett remarks that the thing possessed also “remains in the singular when what is plurally possessed is universal, abstract, or figurative” (211). So if, after blowing their noses, our two women celebrated with a bottle of wine, we might say, The two women toasted their health (universal). If the doorbell rang while they were drinking the wine, we might say, The two women were led by their curiosity to open the door (abstract). But if no one was there when they opened the door, we might say, The visitors wanted to get something off their chest but had a change of heart (figurative).
To Avoid Ambiguity
Quirk et al. observe that sometimes the singular is needed if the plural would be ambiguous (768):
We asked the children to name their favorite animal.
If they were asked to name their favorite animals, the children might not be sure if they should name more than one. To make clear that each child, rather than the group as a whole, should give an answer, we could revise as follows:
We asked each child to answer the question, What is your favorite animal?
Mind Your Nouns
As Words into Type warns, when the sentence has more than one noun, you must be careful to use the singular for the correct noun (357): You should have seen the expression on their faces when they heard the news (not the expression on their face).
Follett, Wilson. Modern American Usage: A Guide. Revised by Erik Wensberg, Hill and Wang, 1998.
Quirk, Randolph, et al. A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language. Longman, 1985.
Words into Type. 3rd ed., Prentice Hall, 1974.
Tamara Herring 15 August 2019 AT 09:08 PM
What is the correct style for writing the plural of a word that is being used as a noun within a sentence? For example, “You are using too many ands in your writing.” From what I’ve found, the Chicago Manual of Style dictates that it be written exactly as included in my example—no underline, apostrophe, quotation marks, etc. Is it the same rule for MLA?
Jennifer A. Rappaport 18 August 2019 AT 08:08 AM
Great question. See our related post on how to form the plural of so: https://style.mla.org/plural-so/.
Jennifer Diaz 14 December 2021 AT 09:12 AM
Should a state name be used as a plural noun? For example, which sentence would be correctly written:
California sent all their trash to Nevada. OR
California sent all its trash to Nevada.
C. Barney Latimer 25 January 2022 AT 05:01 PM
A state name is a singular noun, so the correct sentence is “California sent all its trash to Nevada.” Many nouns known as collective nouns—such as team, family, and class—can be treated as singular or plural, depending on how they are used, but state names are not collective nouns and therefore always take singular verbs.
Luke 17 January 2022 AT 05:01 AM
Could you please help me with this?
If I was writing the following, which is correct or are both acceptable?
Left and Right Engine Bays
Left and Right Engine Bay
Thank you for your help.
C. Barney Latimer 10 March 2022 AT 05:03 PM
Since you are naming two distinct bays, the left one and the right one, the correct formulation would be plural—“left and right engine bays.”
Guru 22 April 2022 AT 03:04 AM
Every time people blows or blow?
Singular or Plural?
Vera Rodrigues 15 June 2022 AT 07:06 AM
Can you tell me witch one is correct: Part of the goods are made of organic cotton, and the other part are made in regular cotton or Part of the goods is made of organic cotton, and the other part is made in regular cotton?
Samantha Spinner 03 November 2022 AT 07:11 PM
When writing an essay, can some paragraphs be in the plural form and some in the singular form?
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