A Word, Please: Nouns can object to plurality rule

Recently, Jim in Glendale saw a newspaper headline that said something like "Five school board members lose seat."

That didn't sit right with him.

"Using the singular 'seat' — instead of the plural 'seats' — is incompatible with 'members,'" Jim wrote in an e-mail. "But that type of usage, though sloppy, seems to be common in everyday speech. So where do we stand? Is it a flagrant no-no, or is it one of those cases where only fussy grammarians would nitpick the issue?"

Jim's question seemed pretty straightforward. The members don't share a seat. If I were the editor, I would have changed "seat" to "seats." So this is simple stuff, right?

Wrong. Little did Jim know he had stumbled into my own personal torture chamber — making sure subjects agree with their objects or complements.

Look at these sentences: Not many teenagers own a motorcycle. We cater to men who want a close shave. The legislators with a conscience voted yes. All the creatures that walk on six legs are insects. Homeowners should be sure that the insurance policy they choose has a low deductible.

This comes up a lot in my editing work. And it drives me insane. A group of teenagers don't own a single motorcycle. If one man wants a close shave, then multiple men must want close shaves. Hundreds of legislators don't share a single conscience.

Some people say that, in these cases, it's most logical to use a singular object: Not many teenagers own a motorcycle. The alternative, they say, suggests that every teenager owns more than one motorcycle: Not many teenagers own motorcycles.

But an opposing camp says that if a bunch of one-motorcycle-owning teenagers in a room park all their bikes in the middle, what you have is motorcycles. Not motorcycle. So these people say it's absurd to suggest that "teenagers have a motorcycle."

Some people thumb their nose or noses at the whole business by saying these sentences should just be rewritten: "Each homeowner should be sure the insurance policy he chooses has a low deductible." But it's not always that easy in the real world — especially when you want to discuss all members of a group.

If you change "All creatures that walk on six legs are insects" to "Each creature that walks on six legs is an insect," you lose some of your original meaning and much of your original emphasis. It's just not the same.

So who's right? No one is. There is no rule that says plural subjects must take plural objects. Nor is there any rule that says singular objects are required to make clear that each subject doesn't possess multiple objects.

"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," writes Barbara Wallraff in "Word Court."

The only rules that apply here are logic and common sense.

So, yes, I agree with Jim that those school board members lost seats and not seat. But, as much as it troubles the quantitative side of my brain, I would not change "All creatures that walk on six legs are insects." No one is going to think that a hundred million creatures all share the same six legs. So there's no reason to toss out this sentence.

JUNE CASAGRANDE is author of "It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences." She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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