Singular or plural?

The question that comes up every so often among editors has come up again: what do you do in a case such as Fish breed for one stage of their life cycles – or is it Fish breed for one stage of their life cycle?

If that one leaves you feeling uncertain, you’re in great company. Everyone who works with the English language has wondered about that one for ages. Even the style guides are mushy on it. So don’t feel as though somehow there’s a clue space that you’re not in on this one. It’s one of those things that the English language is not suitably designed to handle (another one is Either you or I [are/am] going).

Generally, I think, the leaning is towards using the singular where reasonable. In case like Fish breed for one stage of their life cycle, there is additional justification for this because one could assert that all the fish have the same life cycle in the abstract.

But what do you do with something like They each held a cake in their hands? After all, each person might have the cake in both hands. They each held a cake in their hand is clearer but might sound ugly. Each one held a cake in his hand is a problem if there are males and females, and Each one held a cake in his/her hand is ugly. Best to do something like Each of them held a cake in one hand if you can, or, better, There was a cake in the hand of each of them.

But isn’t it annoying that we should feel the need to shift flow and emphasis just to deal with a syntactic inadequacy of our language!

4 responses to “Singular or plural?

  1. Wo hen xiwan nide CBC video. Da vero!


    • Duo xie, keshi I didn’t get onto the show – didn’t make the final cut (which was based on personality fit etc., I think, since all the intelligence testing was earlier in the process and easy enough for me). Maybe next year!

  2. The problem seems to lie in two areas: first, using ‘each’ in a sentence with a plural subject; second, forcing the anti-sexist evasion ‘their’ into a sentence with a singular subject.
    ‘Each wore a red hat’ — OK.
    ‘All (or ‘both’) wore red hats’ — OK.
    ‘Each held a cake in his hand’ — OK.
    ‘All (or ‘both’) held cakes in their hands’ — OK; and if you mean ‘in both hands’, you should say so.

    Which leaves you only with the problem of ‘his’ or ‘her’. ‘Each held a cake’ would be perfectly clear and euphonious; one assumes that people usually hold things in their hands rather than say, clenched between their teeth.

    It is a thorny topic. I’d have said ‘life cycles’ in the first case, because different kinds of fish have different life cycles.

    And blood has been shed in the ‘goat’s cheese’ / ‘goats’ cheese’ war.

  3. With the fish life cycles, it will depend in part on context. Does fish mean “all fish” or say, “fish in this lake/region/climate”? Primarily, however, it depends on how you are defining “life cycle”. If it is generally enough to encompass all fish ( so you mean in effect, “the fish life cycle” ) then it will be singular. If you are implying a level of detail for which different fish may have distinctly different life cycles, then it will be plural unless all the fish in the context have the same life cycle.
    There’s “Either you’re or I’m going”, or you could say “Either you or I go”. It doesn’t feel quite right and there is still a problem with the third person he/she. You could try “Someone goes, either you, me, her, or him” (shorten list as required).
    It’s ‘goat’s cheese’, so long as you only own one goat.

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