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There is a recorded announcement I hear several times a day on the trains I catch to and from work. Here is part of the announcement:

This train contains quiet carriages. Both the first and the last carriages are quiet carriages.

To me, this always sounds wrong. It feels like it should be

This train contains quiet carriages. Both the first and the last carriage are quiet carriages.

This feels more apt, since each of the carriages being mentioned are singular. You would say for instance

First and second place both get a medal

rather than places. Once you go to three or more things, then it is pluralised

The first three places get medals.

Is this all correct? It's been bugging me for a while.

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marked as duplicate by tchrist, Kristina Lopez, MετάEd, Hellion, Matt Эллен May 8 '13 at 11:21

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"Both the first and the last carriage are quiet carriages." "First and second place both get a medal" / "First and second place both get medals". –  Kris Jan 24 '13 at 6:27
    
The last two examples only muddle the water. "The first three places" is plural, yes. But so is "the first two places". (Cf. the first sentence of this very comment.) It has nothing to do with two vs. three, and everything to do with the sentence structure being completely different from "first and second place both get a medal", where you only notice that place is singular yet fail to realize that get is plural. –  RegDwigнt Jan 24 '13 at 9:44
    
Grammatical or not, it's awkward. The carriages themselves are neither quiet nor noisy--it's the people inside them that are being asked to do be quiet. So shun the passivity and political correctness and simply say "Please remain quiet in the first and last carriages." –  ErikE Mar 22 '13 at 19:20
    
It's worse than that. There is a variation on this announcement that asks passengers to 'respect the quiet carriages' when presumably we are being asked to respect the wishes of the other people in those carriages. –  Bogdanovist Mar 29 '13 at 9:26

3 Answers 3

up vote 5 down vote accepted

I believe that the announcement - while it could certainly be rephrased to be more pleasing - is grammatically correct. Try this: leave out "the first and the last", leaving "both carriages are quiet carriages". Adding "the first and the last" does not change the sense or the structure; it merely specifies which the carriages are meant by "both".

Your second example:

First and second place both get a medal

is not correct. If you wish to keep "both", then perhaps you could say

The runners in first and second place both get medals

otherwise, it should be

First and second place each gets a medal.

Both implies a plural; each is singular.

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No, it's not all correct. Let's take them one by one:

This train contains quiet carriages. Both the first and the last carriage are quiet carriages.

Carriage should be carriages:

"Both the first and the last are quiet carriages".

or

Both the first and the last carriages are quiet. Not *Both the first and the last carriage are quiet.

First and second place both get a medal isn't how I'd put it, but I wouldn't argue with it. It's an elided sentence: the missing word is "holders" (placeholders).

It's perfectly reasonable to say "First, second, and third place all get a medal". Changing the sentence to The first three places get medals changes the structure of the sentence. And medals is incorrect because each placeholder gets one medal only, not multiple medals. However, most readers/listeners will know the meaning because they usually have sufficient background knowledge to understand that.

"Once you go to three or more things, then it is pluralised" is strictly your own ad hoc rule. Or can you cite a reference that specifies this as a rule? Some style manual or other? I doubt it.

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I think this is bordering on pedantry. The word "both" is grammatically irrelevant, and checking through some written instances of the large and the small bears out my gut feeling that people routinely follow this construction with singular as well as plural. –  FumbleFingers Jan 24 '13 at 7:25
    
Usage rules fall into 2 categories: those created by pedants and those used by speakers & writers. I'm more rather than less a pedant (I'm a copy editor, so I have to be both a pedant and somewhat obsessive-compulsive), but I know how people use the language: my preferences often conflict with real usage. Users of the language are notoriously inconsistent, as are we pedants (but not as often as the mass of users). Natural language can be used inconsistently because there aren't compilers in our brains that reject "incorrect" syntax: humans interpret language; compilers are 100% rule-bound. –  user21497 Jan 24 '13 at 7:58
    
I understand that - plus I'd expect you to be far more aware of "the rules" than most of us, since you'll constantly have to be deciding whether some construction is "okay" or not. But even if you (and maybe some/all style guides) always apply that "Carriage should be carriages" rule, I don't think you should just baldly write it without citing at least one guide to back you up. And maybe mentioning that not everyone abides by it. Whatever - I certainly agree OP's "three or more" rule sounds like utter tosh. –  FumbleFingers Jan 24 '13 at 16:00
    
I'd just like to mention that your third example phrase, "carriages are quiet", doesn't work here (this is not a grammatical point, but a contextual one). A "quiet carriage" is a carriage where cell phones and other noisemakers are prohibited; it isn't a carriage that has been specially built for a quiet ride. So "carriages are quiet carriages" - which certainly looks redundant at first glance - is actually correct. Perhaps it would be best to call them Quiet Carriages... –  MT_Head Jan 25 '13 at 19:18

Both the first and the last carriage are quiet carriages can be seen in terms of ellipsis, that is, ‘the omission of elements which are recoverable from the linguistic context or the situation’ (‘Longman Student Grammar of Spoken and Written English’). Ellipsis normally occurs after the ellipted element has been mentioned. This would be the case in Both the first carriage and the last are quiet carriages. However, in the original sentence, the word carriage comes so hard on the heels of the first that it is the work of a moment to make the connection.

The same thing happens with the ellipted First and second place both get a medal. The expanded version would be First place and second place both get a medal.

The alternatives - Both the first and the last carriages are quiet carriages and First and second places both get a medal - are equally grammatical. Of course, it’s always possible to dodge the issue entirely with something like The first carriage is quiet, and so is the last and First place gets a medal, and so does second place.

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