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Consider the following:

  • I pull my ear.
  • He pulls his ear.
  • She pulls her ear.

What would be the correct form of "ear" for plural subjects? Is there a generalized rule that I can be pointed to?

For example, they pull their ear just sounds wrong to me (do "they" collectively have an ear sitting around somewhere to pull?), leading me to think it should be they pull their ears. Similar is the case for, say, we pull our ear, but these plural forms can be misunderstood as pulling both ears.

Is the only solution here to recast the sentence to something more specific like "We each pull one of our ears?"

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The ambiguity is caused not by the use of singular or plural, but by the sentence structure. If there's a single object pulled (by one or by more than one together), use singular; if there's more than one object pulled, use plural invariably. See also: ell.stackexchange.com –  Kris Sep 6 '13 at 7:15
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@Kris, it’s never quite that simple with ‘distributed body parts’ (for lack of a better term). It rather depends on whether you consider everyone is doing the same thing as a group, denoting a single, unified action; or whether the whole thing represents a set of individual actions taken on individual body parts. It’s a continuum: “they pull their ear” sounds very odd, but the singular is fine in a context like, “I asked them to raise the hand they write with, and they all raised their right hand”. The plural (to me) sounds a bit odd, indicating that each person had more than one right hand. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Sep 6 '13 at 7:27
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2 Answers 2

up vote 1 down vote accepted

They pull their ears would be grammatically correct. However, it does not convey whether the theys pull one or two ears. (The possibility that they pull the ear or ears of someone else in the group is a third possibility, but so unlikely as to not be a real issue).

There are a number of ways to convey that only one ear per person is being pulled is

  • They each pull their ear
  • They pull an ear
  • They each pull an ear
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These are some helpful alternatives to consider. I'm trying to keep "their" and other possessive adjectives in place, if possible. –  Ananda Mahto Sep 6 '13 at 16:21
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Why not just add the word left or right? (Or am I being too simplistic?) In the past tense, the sentence could be:

They all pulled their left ear.

They all pulled their right ear.

They each pulled their right ear.

They each pulled their left ear.

I was tempted to use the "strictly" correct

They each pulled his or her left ear,

or

They each pulled his or her right ear,

but that would be too schoolmarm-ish (i.e., dogmatically strict).

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In a way you're being too simplistic. In a way not. These are part of a series of simple commands being introduced as mini lessons to second language learners where we will progress through different variations like "lift your hand", "lift both your hands", "lift your right hand" and so on. So eventually, we would be coming to specifying left and right. +1 for the divination! :) –  Ananda Mahto Sep 7 '13 at 5:15
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