Not Quite a Frolic 14: The distributive singular

I dedicate this post – with thanks – to my fellow blogger Deborah Drucker, whose comment on my previous post has prompted its revision and spurred me on to write this one.

 I had every intention of frolicking with you today, but a remark from Deborah has prompted me to comment further on the so-called ‘distributive singular’, which was mentioned in yesterday’s post. Deborah pointed out (albeit most pleasantly) that the singular ‘life’, which I suggested using instead of the plural ‘lives’, sounded ‘funny’ – and she did have a point in that this particular example wasn’t very good, both forms being in use. That will teach me not to try to squeeze too much out of a quote, the one in question having been chosen for quite a different purpose. Happily, this post affords me the opportunity to regale you with more apposite examples from my collection.

Whether to use the distributive singular is a matter of idiom – of what sounds natural in English. You may think this a bit rich coming from me: after all, I am a Pole for whom English is – or at least used to be – a foreign language, but, after nearly five decades of feasting on English grammar and over 30 years of living in Britain, I have become quite attuned to this fabulous language – though many idioms still remain a challenge. Here come my examples.

A few days ago, I nearly went flying when I dashed to grab a pen so that I could jot down what I’d just heard on BBC Radio 4, which went like this.

“Schools are doing great jobs.”

 How does it sound to you (particularly if you are a native speaker of English) – wouldn’t you say: “Schools are doing a great job”? If you would, you would be using the distributive singular. Another example (which I quoted in my reply to Deborah) comes from The Economist.

“They are the ones who turned blind eyes to the concoction of credit …”

 This one should definitely be: “those who turned a blind eye” – even if the esteemed Economist thinks otherwise. And how does the quote below, from The Times Educational Supplement, grab you?

 “92 per cent of secondary pupils own mobiles.”

 I wonder how many mobiles each of them owns But change ‘mobiles’ to ‘mobile’ and the ambiguity disappears. The next quote is also from The Times Educational Supplement.

 “Collaboration is all very well, but principals have enough on their plates without having to support other schools.”

 Nope: they have enough on their plate. My final example has been culled from The Sunday Times.

 “Life expectancies were much lower before the 20th century came along.”

 ‘Fraid not: what was lower was life expectancy.  This is what the authors of the fabulous Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, four distinguished professors, have to say on the subject. (I haven’t used quotation marks around their examples.)

 “The singular is sometimes obligatory or preferable with idioms and metaphors.”

 We are keeping an open mind. [PROBABLY NOT open minds]

They vented their spleen on him. [DEFINITELY NOT spleens]

They can’t put their finger on what’s wrong. [DEFINITELY NOT their fingers]

 “The distributive singular is sometimes used to avoid ambiguity.”

 Students were asked to name their favourite sport. [NOT sports]

Children must be accompanied by a parent. [NOT NECESSARILY parents]

So that’s the distributive singular in a nutshell. Tomorrow’s post will definitely be a ‘proper’ frolic. I hope you will all have a lovely weekend – NOT lovely weekends (those too, but NOT this week)!

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9 thoughts on “Not Quite a Frolic 14: The distributive singular

    • Thank you kindly, Mark. I have, indeed, studied English – and with great passion at that – for ages and ages but wouldn’t want to come across as a know-it-all. It’s just that I love your magnificent language so much that I can’t bear to see it mutilated! 🙂

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  1. Thanks Anna for the mention. This distributive singular is a tough one all right. I think I understood you to say that it is often used with idioms and metaphors. So in every day expression usually the singular. Have a nice weekend too.

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    • Yes, it is tough, Deborah. I’m actually not entirely sure about ‘the majority’ – a friend thinks I’m wrong, and we are slugging it out at the moment. Well, I might even have to concede defeat: he is a native speaker, after all. All the best, Anna 🙂

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  2. I take issue with “their majorities.”

    I’d use the plural there to support the fact that the Democrats do in fact have two majorities: one in the House and one in the Senate. It’s a big deal to have both of those; I wouldn’t want to minimize the importance by using the singular form.

    Similarly, I would retain “their plates” for all those principals. They’re not sharing one plate, nor even the same meal. Each principal has a figurative plate containing specific things.

    There you have my two cents. Great column, as always!

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    • Very many thanks for this, Karen. I would concede that the ‘majority’/ ‘majorities’ issue is not clear-cut but disagree with ‘plate’ versus ‘plates’ – ‘one has a lot on one’s plate’ is an idiom which, I firmly believe, falls into the ‘obligatory singular’ category. Shall we agree to disagree? I’d hate to fall out with anybody over the distributive singular of all things! Best wishes, Anna

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