A recent headline from the
, “Teens plotting attacks tend to tip their hand,” highlights a particularly difficult grammar problem.
Do plural teens really share a singular hand? No. But would it be better to make “hand” plural, giving us “Teens plotting attacks tend to tip their hands”? Not necessarily. In fact, the consensus seems to be that, no, a plural object in a sentence like this is not an improvement over a singular subject.
This issue falls under the umbrella of what are called “agreement problems.” But unlike better-known agreement issues, notably subject-verb agreement, what’s sometimes called subject-object agreement isn’t as well known — quite possibly because it’s futile to even think about.
Subject-verb agreement means that a verb takes the right form to match its subject. For example, a singular first-person subject, “I,” gets paired with the first-person singular verb “am” instead of another form like “is” or “are.” Even for
who’ve never heard this grammar terminology, alarm bells go off immediately when they hear something like “I is,” “I are” or “I be.”
The only time subject-verb agreement is difficult is when a complicated sentence causes you to lose track of the subject: “The North American predator bird, a group whose members include hawks and falcons and eagles, are found in different regions of the country.”
That sentence contains an error — “are” should be “is” to match the singular “bird.” Mistakes like this happen because a writer gets thrown by all the plurals that came after “bird” and not because he actually believes it’s right to say “The bird are found.”
But while subject-verb agreement is pretty easy, subject-object agreement can be impossible. Literally.
Consider these sentences: “All the people in the audience raised their hand.” “Homeowners should check to make sure that the insurance policy they choose has a low deductible.” “In the United States, very few teenagers own a motorcycle.”
Clearly, people don’t share a single hand, homeowners don’t share a single policy with a single deductible, and teenagers don’t share a single motorcycle. But what happens when we try to make these more logical?
“All the people in the audience raised their hands” sounds as though every person there raised two hands into the air.
“Homeowners choosing policies with low deductibles” suggests that maybe we’re talking about each homeowner buying several policies or, at the very least, one policy with different types of deductibles.
“Very few teenagers own motorcycles,” too, makes it logical to guess we’re talking about teenagers each owning more than one motorcycle.
So what’s the correct choice? There isn’t one.
“When one is at pains to make clear that the individuals in the subject are to be paired one apiece with the persons, places, or things in question, the number of the noun can’t be relied on to make the point,” according to Barbara Wallraff’s “Word Court.”
Other experts agree.
Writers who simply want to avoid sounding terrible should recast the sentences that pose these subject-object agreement problems. “Every person in the audience raised his or her hand.” “It is the rare teenager who owns a motorcycle.” “The homeowner should choose a policy with a low deductible.”
But rewriting isn’t always an option. And when it’s not, all you can do is choose the form that sounds best to you.
I usually opt for a plural object, “Everyone in the audience raised their hands,” just because it’s more logical. Multiple people have multiple hands.
I seem to be in the minority on this, but Wallraff supports my case. As she has pointed out, in the sentence “Both men rely heavily on their wives,” the men could be bigamists. But in “Both men rely heavily on their wife,” the woman certainly is.