Ask a Scholar: A Grammatical Conundrum

David J. Rothman

Dear Ask a Scholar,

I have always used this logic to determine if a direct object should be a plural or not:

  • The boys brought a bucket (only one bucket, which was brought jointly by the boys).
  • The boys brought buckets (each one brought his own bucket; i.e.; more than one buckets). 

In the above you can easily add “their” in front of bucket and it remains correct.

In the second part of the statement, however, the confusion about lexical markings of singular and plural adjectives enters in:

However, when ownership precedes a noun that you can only have one of, it is not as clear cut. Which of the following is correct?

  • The women emptied their bladder. (obviously more than one bladder is involved, since you can’t share a bladder, this seems right)
  • The women emptied their bladders. (this also seems right as they clearly have different bladders.) 

I know I can change the sentence around (Each woman emptied her bladder.) to avoid the problem, but I was wondering it there is a grammar rule that covers this.

- Joanne Clark, Memorial University of Newfoundland

Answered by David J. Rothman, Director of the Poetry Concentration with an Emphasis on Form in the MFA Program at Western State College of Colorado and Lecturer in the Program for Writing and Rhetoric at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Dr. Rothman graduated cum laude from Harvard University and received his Ph.D. in English with a concentration in Poetics from New York University. He has taught courses in literature and writing at the University of Utah, Zhejiang University (People’s Republic of China), New York University, Western State College of Colorado, and several secondary schools. His poems and essays appear widely.

One of the interesting things about English, because of its loss of earlier inflections that existed in all of its sources (esp. German and French), is that adjectives and the nouns they modify float relatively more free of each other.  In French, for example, there's simply no doubt: the adjective has to agree with its noun.  In English, however, with its relative lack of inflections, things get sloppier—which is actually a virtue in a number of ways, as it opens the language to all sorts of influx, but can create confusion.

So to pick up on the first example but to change the noun, there are certain cases where things are very clear, e.g. "They didn't bring their car" vs. "They didn't bring their cars."  This is of course similar to your first example above, except that you’ll see I’m using “their” to modify “car” in each case. In the first case, a group of people has one car; in the second, each in the group has a car.  To stick with French, in the first case "their" would be singular 

("leur"), in the second plural ("leurs").  In English, because that shift doesn't exist (or, more accurately, isn't lexically marked), it's easier to confuse things—there's a gain in flexibility and a loss, on occasion, in clarity.  So while one sentence ("They can't make up their mind") colloquially may mean the same as the second ("They can't make up their minds"), the second is presumably more often what is meant, as it describes a group of people each of whom cannot make up his or her mind independently of the others.

On the other hand, the first sentence could mean a collective mind, and that's a possible construction, e.g., "It's a hung jury; the jurors can't make up their mind."  What this says is that the jury has a single collective mind, and its members cannot bring that single collective mind to a decision—a perfectly reasonable thing to say, it seems to me.  So it's not a question of correct or incorrect, but of what one is trying to say, although the two do get colloquially blurred in English because of the inflection ambiguities.

So this logic in the Ask a Scholar query is completely accurate in the “bucket” example.

As for the second example about the bladders: The rule is still the same as in other languages—that the personal pronoun should agree with what it modifies—so IF what is meant is that there are many women and each one emptied her own bladder (which seems to be the only possible meaning here), the second bullet is the correct choice, because "their" is understood as plural in the sense that it has to agree with many "bladders."  The problem, or misunderstanding (which is every bit as interesting as finding the "correct" sentence...) enters in, however, because there are in fact many sentences, e.g. "The women brought their car," where that construction has a distinct and precise meaning.  The wonderful sloppiness of English lexical and syntactical categories thus leads many to make this kind of sentence in places that don't quite work, because the inflectional rules are so less rigid and distinct than in many other languages.

You can see this problem highlighted by the fact that the correspondent who asked the question understands intuitively that it revolves around the word "their."  After all, if the choice were between "The women emptied A bladder" (er...whatever that would mean...Siamese twins?) and "The women emptied THEIR bladders," the distinction would be clear.  So, to reiterate, the problem arises because of the lack of any differentiation in the singular and plural forms of "their," which streamlines the language because it is uninflected with respect to the noun it modifies, which creates confusion at times.

To sum up – look to the noun modified. If it’s plural, go plural; if it’s singular, go singular and follow the semantics closely.

* * *

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Have a question Wikipedia can’t answer? “Ask a Scholar” matches readers’ questions to scholars with answers. We invite readers to submit questions. Click on the link to send us an email, or you may submit questions via Intellectual Takeout's Ask the Professor feature.

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Image: Leeds Grammar School by mackius // CC BY

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