Magazine article The Masthead

How Many Wives? How Many Faces?

Magazine article The Masthead

How Many Wives? How Many Faces?

Article excerpt

WHY WOULD SENTENCES about "the deaths of three bungee jumpers" and "the former law practice of Clinton's wife Hillary" be incorrect? The answer lies in grammatical number.

Choosing a singular or plural noun is not always simple mathematics.

Would pyromaniacs have a compulsion or compulsions to start destructive fires? Would they wipe smoke off their face or faces ?

During Operation Desert Storm, were U.S. soldiers in Baghdad held prisoner or prisoners?

Should students be told to hold their tongue or tongues?

As abstractions and figures of speech, nouns are singular. Concrete nouns are singular or plural according to the context. Three bungee jumpers would plunge to their death. Pyromaniacs have a compulsion to start destructive fires, but would wipe smoke off their faces. U.S. soldiers were held prisoner (an abstract state of captivity) but would be held as prisoners (concrete people held in captivity). Students should hold their figurative tongue.

Number can be determined incorrectly by punctuation, as in a Service Merchandise sign advertising "Infant's Toys" -- a sign that would make the one child owning all of those toys ecstatic. A Kinney Drugs sign did worse; its "Infant Toys" sign advertised toys that have not grown up.

Should the signs read "Infants' Toys" or "Infants Toys"?

"Infants' Toys" reflects the hope that all of those toys might be bought. Until those toys are owned by children, they are "Infants Toys" -- toys for children to buy.

If an apparent possessive can be rewritten in a longer form to include "for," it usually is not possessive. …

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