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Many individuals lost their individual life. or Many individuals list their individual lives.

Each person has one life right?

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I have seen this confusion with "each", but with "many", isn't it clearly plural? Many + plural word, followed by their (a plural) + plural word. –  Kosmonaut Feb 14 '11 at 16:57
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@Kosmonaut: Not necessarily. I could say, "X and Y invited me to their house." Their, despite being a plural, need not be followed by a plural word. Or even, "Many liberals wanted him to join their party". –  Tragicomic Feb 14 '11 at 17:41
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@Tragicomic: Yes, but then it would imply one house belonging to multiple people. This is fine for a house, but we know for lives that this is not the intended meaning. So, if you are talking about lives and their is plural, then life must be pluralized too. –  Kosmonaut Feb 14 '11 at 18:43
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@Kosmonaut: I agree. There is not much room for doubt here since lives would have have to be plural. However, it is possible for confusion to exist with "many + plural word, followed by their (a plural) + plural word", since using either a singular or plural noun as the object would mean different things, and using either of these would be grammatical. Based on the OP's comments to answers below ("the students' books or book?"), I think this is want the question is about. –  Tragicomic Feb 15 '11 at 6:56
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3 Answers 3

up vote 3 down vote accepted

In the simplest sentences, the object agrees in number with the subject.

  • He is a student.
  • They are students.

However, the object does not need to agree with the number of the subject and the verb. None of these is incorrect:

  • Most families today own a car.
  • Both of them sprained an ankle during the trek.
  • They all thought they had an answer to the problem.
  • Teenage vandals are a problem in this neighbourhood.

In your sample sentences, the object life takes the plural pronoun their, and each of the sentences carries a different meaning.

  • Many lost their life. (All of them together had one life to lose: their life.)
  • Many lost their lives. (Each of them lost one or more lives, practically understood to mean that each of them lost their own life as people usually have only the one life to lose.)
  • All my opponents lost a life trying to collect that torque bow in Level 7 of the game.
  • All my opponents lost lives trying to collect that torque bow in Level 7 of the game.

You could also take a look at page 54 of Rodney Huddleston's English Grammar for some more details and examples.

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I'm not sure the argument with the determiner 'their' + singular works so well, though: 'their' is regularly used with a singular, either to denote a singular object belonging to a group, or belonging to a single person of unspecified gender (so e.g. I think "The caller didn't leave their number", "The callers didn't leave their number" and "The callers didn't leave their numbers" imply three different situations). –  Neil Coffey Feb 14 '11 at 14:18
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@Neil Coffey: I agree. Perhaps my answer isn't clear. In "The callers didn't leave their number", it seems as though the callers all have one common number that they did not leave, which would seem very strange with people's lives. If they had different numbers, you would say, "The callers didn't leave their numbers". Both of these would be perfectly grammatical. –  Tragicomic Feb 14 '11 at 15:22
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@Neil Coffey: Edited the answer to show the different situations. –  Tragicomic Feb 14 '11 at 15:53
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Wow you guys are amazing. I don't know who to give the answer to. Honestly. –  Joshua Robison Feb 14 '11 at 16:46
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In cases like this, and unlike some other languages, English tends to use what is sometimes called a "distributed plural", so even though each person only has one life, the plural is used as though representing "all the lives together". Similarly: "The teacher asked the pupils to get their notebooks out".

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Is it possible then when distinguishing between those students who only had one book and those who had many to use the singular? for example, "That Monday, the students with only one book took their book out while the students with two or three left their books in." –  Joshua Robison Feb 14 '11 at 5:26
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Josh -- yes, in that case, where you're no longer talking about all of the group, then yes. Similarly, with 'each', you could say "The students each got their book out.": in this case, you're no longer "distributing" the books over the whole group. –  Neil Coffey Feb 14 '11 at 13:11
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"Many lost their lives" is correct. "Many" is plural, "their" is plural, "lives" must be plural too.

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OK. Then what happens when a person has more than one life and you want to distinguish between people who only lost one of their lives and some who lost two or three? You have to say that some lost their life and others lost their lives. –  Joshua Robison Feb 14 '11 at 5:21
    
for example. 1) all the people who had a cat lost their cat and all who had five cats lost their cats too but none who had a dog lost it. –  Joshua Robison Feb 14 '11 at 5:22
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No, you don't have to say that; you'd say "Many people lost a life, some lost two or three" (or "many people lost one of their lives, some lost two or three"), and "many people lost all their cats but none lost their dogs." –  Hellion Feb 14 '11 at 5:32
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