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When there is a group or list of specific items, its components are curiously pluralized when reciting them in one sentence.

For instance,when a person discusses the qualities of blue-chip stocks, he might say, "I'm talking about your IBMs, your Procter and Gambles, your General Electrics."

In referring to Hall of Fame baseball players, one might say, "Just compare your Ruths, your Gehrigs, your Cobbs, your Killebrews, to today's players."

Why is the "intrusive s", or inappropriate plural form, so often heard and seen? After all, we are only talking about one IBM company, one Babe Ruth ....

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Out of curiosity, who was the speaker you're quoting here? –  Raku Oct 17 '11 at 9:12
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4 Answers

Plurals are used in that sentence because the things being listed ARE plural, not singular. The fact that it's a list isn't really important.

"I'm talking about your IBMs, your Procter and Gambles, your General Electrics"... means "I'm talking about all of the companies that do work or in other ways similar to: IBM, Procter and Gamble, and General Electric."

The use of "your" is just to say "these companies are yours in that they are part of your social identity", and isn't really meaningful.

Raku is right in that this is "pars pro toto" (and less specifically, an example of synecdoche) because "IBMs" is used to refer to the whole set of companies similar to IBM in some ways.

As a similar example not in a list, someone might say:

"All of these Einsteins are blowing the rest of us out of the water."

Here, Einsteins are just a bunch of smart people.

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+1 for the Einstein example. But 'your' does add an important element of generality, possibly to avoid confusion with IBMs meaning shares or Gehrigs to mean the two baseball-playing brothers (No, I haven't heard of the other one either: obviously not very successful.) It's sometimes in the form "Today's players aren't a patch on the Gowers, Bothams and Lillees of twenty years ago". –  TimLymington Oct 17 '11 at 10:14
    
I agree with @TimLymington, that 'your' adds an important aspect here ('social identity' is a bit vague and feels incorrect; maybe better would be 'cultural context' but it is still vague). Furthermore, I don't think we have "pars" here, but instances and instances are not parts. I like the Einsteins example; however note that that is definitively antonomasia and not "pars pro toto". Furthermore, while I agree that listing is not important for the question why these are plurals, it is very relevant to how the figure works (more in my answer, after the edit). –  Unreason Oct 17 '11 at 12:48
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Your is an important element of the construct. This definition from AHD4 applies here: your Informal Used with little or no sense of possession to indicate a type familiar to the listener: your basic three-story frame house. –  D Krueger Oct 17 '11 at 13:03
    
Adding 's' to pluralise singular nouns like IBM creates a new plural form meaning '(things) companies like IBM', with which you could substitue the word 'IBMs'. –  Pete855217 Nov 16 '12 at 6:18
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IMHO this is a "pars pro toto" idiom where you mention a part (lat. "pars") for ("pro") the whole ("toto").

The plural is used to express generalization. The speaker is not really talking about the single company IBM, the single baseball player Gehrig, but the whole set of companies and famous players. He is just mentioning the part (company, player) to speak about the whole (companies, famous players).

Pluralizing the single parts also has the effect of augmenting the effect of mentioning powerful representatives of the whole. This makes the speaker sound more convincing, which is, in general, the aim of every stylistic device.

Mark's metonymy is also present here. So I think it's a combination of multiple stylistic devices.

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This does not explain the plural –  Unreason Oct 17 '11 at 8:50
    
You're right, Unreason. I've edited my answer and added more details. –  Raku Oct 17 '11 at 9:10
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I would say it's a form of metonymy. But that doesn't explain the 's.'

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Well the way I perceive the construct 'your + plural', where the plural is a plural of a unique noun is

  • this is a metaphor; in your first example it refers to blue-chip stock, in second example it refers to top baseball players

  • it is a metaphor because it refers to 'your IBM' and 'your Cobb' - IBM is not your neither is Cobb; it refers to 'companies/players that share attributes with IBM/Cobb'

  • repetition clarifies what the common attribute is

EDIT: The following does not really touch on the details why plural is useful here, but since an attempt had been made to classify the rhetoric figure used, I will comment on that.

I feel that 'part for the whole' (pars pro toto) is related, but that it is not a defining trait.

Let me present two figures I believe are more relevant. First is called interpretatio and it deals with the repetition and another is antonomasia and describes the type of metaphor used in each repetition:

1) synonymia (specifically interpretatio)

In general, the use of several synonyms together to amplify or explain a given subject or term. A kind of repetition that adds emotional force or intellectual clarity

Example:
You blocks, you stones, you worse than senseless things! ("Julius Caesar", Shakespeare)
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free
("The New Colossus", Emma Lazarus)

2) antonomasia (also periphrasis)

Substituting a descriptive phrase for a proper name, or substituting a proper name for a quality associated with it.

Example:
He proved a Judas to the cause.

Here "a Judas" stands for "treacherous".

Similarly in the case of the "your Ruths, your Gehrigs, your Cobbs, your Killebrews" it stands for "legendary", in case of stock for "blue-chip".

However, originally antonomasia does not need repetition to clearly point to the attribute, where the quotes in the question became more clear through interpretatio.

Finally, I don't feel that synedoche (pars pro toto) is a good match to describe the figure used here.

A whole is represented by naming one of its parts (genus named for species), or vice versa (species named for genus).

Examples:
Listen, you've got to come take a look at my new set of wheels.

Here and in other examples that I found the metaphor literally uses a part to refer to a whole and not an instance of a class to refer to a class (as we have in the examples from the question).

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