From proper punctuation and the decline of the subjunctive to correct etiquette in emails and text messaging, Rogers (known at the National Geographic as StyleMaven) raises questions and renders opinions on the English language.
Singular Noun Following a Plural Possessive
Posted Aug 30,2007

I’m always happy to hear from readers who identify themselves as "grammar sticklers." It means there are people out there who care about the very things I spend my days contemplating.

Recently a self-described stickler complained about several sentences in the June issue of National Geographic, including ". . . classifications of life-forms and their relation to common ancestors" and "As glaciers thin, their surface sinks. . . ." The persnickety reader pointed out that both relation and surface should be plural.

I agree that using the plural would have been preferable, although I think the singular is not wrong. In fact one could argue that each glacier has only one surface and therefore singular is better. However, this subtle rule of usage—singular noun with plural pronoun—is usually reserved for nouns that express abstract qualities. Below is a section from the National Geographic Style Manual describing such usage.   

            Singular Noun With Plural Possessive: A singular noun can be used with
            a plural possessive for abstract qualities and figurative words: Four pilots
            crashed to their death, but four pilots ran to their cars; the men earned their
            living; the spectators held their breath; the depositors' curiosity was piqued;
            they kept their honor.

Are there any grammar sticklers reading this blog? What do you think?

Posted by Lesley Rogers | Comments (9)
Filed Under: Grammar


Luigi Guarino
Aug 30, 2007 1PM #

I'm the opposite of a grammar stickler, but that seems to me as quite a logical way of deciding the question. It's a problem I've run across often, and it's good to now have a rule of thumb to refer to. But the ultimate test is whether it sounds right!

Andrea Jessen
Aug 30, 2007 1PM #

This isn't really a response to your blog, but I cannot find another place to post my comment about an article in the November issue.

Am I the only one who was disappointed in the quality of the writing in the article "Death Valley", by Tim Cahill, in the November, 2007, issue. The first sentence, "Imagine the sight of Death Valley National Park is something akin to scientific pornography for hard-rock geologists", does not make sense, and the first word, "Imagine", is downright superfluous. Try the sentence without that word; it is much better.

There is another grammatically incorrect sentence on page 90: "[The valley] was created by about two million years ago when the land between separating mountain ranges dropped along faults." Again, the word "by" does not belong.

Much of the rest of the article is well written, with artful descriptions and succinct prose, up to the usual standards of National Geographic magazine. I just cannot fathom how that first sentence made it past your proofreaders. Picky rules about grammar mean nothing without a well-constructed sentence.


Andrea L. Jessen

Aug 30, 2007 1PM #

Andrea, that is not poor grammar, rather an oversight.

A Taxed Mind
Aug 30, 2007 1PM #

Andrea, I think you will find you have misread the sentence. The sentence actually reads: "I imagine...".

A Taxed Mind
Aug 30, 2007 1PM #

Andrea, it is neither poor grammar nor an oversight, but a result of you having misread the printed sentence. The sentence actually reads "I imagine...". Reread the sentence, bearing in mind that the writer is presumably not a "hard-rock geologist" and you will find it not only makes perfect sense, but the word "imagine" is necessary rather than superfluous.

Aug 30, 2007 1PM #

i will like to know about nouns and pronouns

Chris C.
Aug 30, 2007 1PM #

Okay, but is a word like "season" considered to be sufficiently abstract or figurative to get a plural possessive with a singular noun? E.G. "Fred Johnson and Ginger Phillips wanted to finish their season in minor league baseball."

Aug 30, 2007 1PM #

Hey, Chris.

I'd say "season" is abstract enough to use in the singular. You can't really touch it as a physical entity. And the one "season" basically belonged to all who were playing. But enough analysis. Doesn't it just sound better to say "their season"?

Aug 30, 2007 1PM #

Question: I saw in the paper "Johnson's 2nd Anniversary." Ouch. Shouldn't that be "Johnsons' 2nd Anniversary" because there are 2 of them?

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