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Is "family" both plural and singular? or would I have to say families for the plural form? For example, which of these is the best option:

  • "A majority of those whose family were unaware of their sexuality..."
  • "A majority of those whose families were unaware of their sexuality..."
  • "A majority of those whose family was unaware of their sexuality..."

Edit: Here are some full sentences to give some context.

Participants whose famil(ies) were aware of their sexuality were predominantly feminine and identified as gay, homosexual, drag queen, or a combination of these identities. All those who assumed their famil(ies) knew about their sexuality were gay identified and a majority identified as feminine. A majority of those whose famil(ies) were unaware were masculine and identified as non-gay, straight, down low or did not identify with any label.

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@tchrist: How so? Surely those should always be plural, so of OP's three alternatives, only families were really works. FWIW, "those whose mothers were":58300 hits in Google Books; "those whose mother was": 7490 hits. –  FumbleFingers Apr 22 '13 at 4:23
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@FumbleFingers Not necessarily. “Let only those men whose wife has given him permission to go overseas without her step forward.” You do not wish to suggest that each man has several wives, after all. :) –  tchrist Apr 22 '13 at 4:25
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@tchrist: Each of us must have their own opinion, I guess. Presumably you find that example acceptable, but it seriously rankles with me. I'd have to change it to “Let only those men whose wives have given them permission to go overseas without them step forward.” Applying them to both the men and their wives is pretty crappy, but to me it's better than trying to force those into singular. In practice, obviously, I'd look for a less problematic way to phrase the whole concept. –  FumbleFingers Apr 22 '13 at 4:39
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I have added more examples to clarify the question. Thanks for the feedback! –  Kwi Apr 22 '13 at 12:44
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@FumbleFingers I guess it then comes down to the question of distributive plurals. Should all men touch their right hand to their nose, or their right hands to their noses? There are arguments to be made in both directions there, but I don’t expect anyone to be convinced. Suffice it to say that both styles are readily found in the wild. –  tchrist Apr 22 '13 at 15:48
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2 Answers

Now that you've provided the complete context, I think it is safe to say two things.

  1. Whichever variant works best for the last sentence in isolation — and it is easy to imagine that all three do, depending on dialect and register —, since the construction is repeated in the other two sentences, you'd be well-advised to pick one variant that fits them all, and stick to it throughout. If nothing else, it's at least good style.
  2. The variant that works best in the first sentence is "Participants whose families were". Why? I have no why, other than It Just Sounds Right™. But when hard-pressed, I might paraphrase this answer to a closely related question: "Plural, because we are, in fact, dealing with several families. A participant has a family, but participants have families."

So the whole text would read:

Participants whose families were aware of their sexuality were predominantly feminine and identified as gay, homosexual, drag queen, or a combination of these identities. All those who assumed their families knew about their sexuality were gay identified and a majority identified as feminine. A majority of those whose families were unaware were masculine and identified as non-gay, straight, down low or did not identify with any label.

I for one find that unexceptionable English. As a bonus, you also sidestep the whole issue of family being singular in American English, but plural in British English. That is, what you get works in both.

And, to quote that other answer once again, "I'm sure others will back me on this".

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The word family will be singular or plural, depending on the way it is referred to.

In this example, it will be family (singular), since the sentence actually concerns a human/person/individual, and not multiple families. Thus, the family in the extract refers to each individual's family, of which they all only have one, hence family (singular).

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That is not how distributive plurals work. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Aug 17 '13 at 11:20
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