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If there are several adjectives referring to different instances of the same noun, should the noun be plural?

For example, which of the following is correct?

  1. The first, second, fifth and eighth runner...
  2. The first, second, fifth and eighth runners...
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Use "runners", unless by some quirk the same person occupied all those places in the race. –  GEdgar Sep 28 '11 at 12:53
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"Ordinals" has nothing to do with the question being asked. It could just as well be the English, American, and Chinese runners, or the Tall, fat and one-legged runners. –  FumbleFingers Sep 28 '11 at 14:18
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1 Answer

It is usually runners, since you are referring to four separate runners, and the verb (are) is plural:

The first, second, fifth, and eighth runners are wearing blue.

One way runner could properly be singular is if you put it after every adjective:

The first runner, second runner, fifth runner, and eighth runner are all wearing blue.

As English sanctions elimination of repeated (and redundant) words, the following is also grammatically correct:

The first, second, fifth, and eighth runner are all wearing blue.

However, this is much less common, since most people instinctively do not prefer to put a singular noun (runner) directly before a plural verb (are).

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I'm not convinced. Suppose I were ordering sandwiches, and I wanted one tuna sandwich and one turkey sandwich. I would say "Could I please have a tuna and a turkey sandwich?" (not sandwiches; that would be wrong, even though there are two of them) Eliminating repeated words in parallel structure is allowed in English. So why isn't it grammatical to take your second sentence, and eliminate the redundant "runner"s, to get "The first, second, fifth, and eighth runner are all wearing blue."? –  Peter Shor Sep 28 '11 at 14:54
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Let me add that saying "runners" is correct. But you could also correctly say "The first, the second, the fifth, and the eighth runner are all wearing blue." I don't know whether you can say it if you drop the "the"s as well, though. –  Peter Shor Sep 28 '11 at 15:00
    
I edited, since you are correct. I'll have to think about the sandwich one, though; maybe I'll figure out why that sounds right. –  Daniel Sep 28 '11 at 16:44
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The "sandwich" version works because of the repeated "a", similar to repeating "runner". There must be some "borderline" phrasing in this general area, where some people pluralise and others don't, but offhand I can't come up with an example. –  FumbleFingers Sep 28 '11 at 17:02
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Consider a story which includes a pair of men, one fat and one thin. I think you could say: "The fat and thin man were coming towards me ..." You can't really use "men" here, since that would describe more than two people. On the other hand, if you said "The thin and tall man were coming towards me ..." it doesn't sound right, because one man could be both thin and tall. You need to say "The thin and the tall man ..." (I'd add an extra "the" in "The fat and thin man", as well, but I don't believe you really need to since, like ordinals, they're mutually exclusive adjectives.) –  Peter Shor Sep 29 '11 at 15:53
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