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After the therapy, eight children (43%) became able to crawl/move on their back.

Or should I use "on their backs"?

Singular because each child only has one back, or plural because we're dealing with eight backs?

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Related: “Only those who qualify will be awarded a certificate” or “Only those who qualify will be awarded certificates”? and the many linked questions on the right hand side of this page. –  RegDwigнt Mar 6 '11 at 16:56

2 Answers 2

up vote 7 down vote accepted

Plural, because we are, in fact, dealing with eight little backs. And a back is a back, no matter how small. A child has a back, but children have backs.

I'm sure others will back me on this.

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Not relevant - if several children owned a single turtle between them, it would be "their turtle", not "their turtles". –  lotsoffreetime Mar 6 '11 at 17:49
    
@user653: But the OP is not talking about a shared turtle. –  Robusto Mar 6 '11 at 18:01
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@Robusto, I think the point @user653 was making is that the fact that "their" is plural does not automatically imply that the word following it has to be plural too. –  Hellion Mar 6 '11 at 18:24
    
@Hellion: Ah, I see. @user653 must be responding to @Fountain, not to my post itself. –  Robusto Mar 6 '11 at 18:31
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@Robusto: also, you forgot to mention that while children have backs, baby got back. :-) –  Hellion Mar 6 '11 at 18:46

The semantic, grammatical, and logical arguments clearly suggest it's 'correct' to use the plural, and that's what most people do.

However, despite the fact that I doubt if any style guide endorses the singular, it seems that about 10% of usages for back persist in using the singular.

For reasons which escape me, that 'incorrect' minority rises to nearly 25% when the body part in question is chest. In both cases the evidence strongly suggests the incorrect usage is becoming more widespread.

Personally I believe it's a situation where grammarians backed the wrong horse, and their blind prescriptivism will eventually be defeated. People quite naturally want to use the singular when the number of [body parts, whatever] is immaterial, and only the plurality of [babies, people] is relevant. Increasingly, it seems, they're prepared to do this even at the risk of being considered illiterate. .

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