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A girl was found in a house belonging to one of two criminals; is it correct to express this in the following way:

The girl was found in one of the criminals' houses.

Does the plural use of 'house' suggest that the criminal in whose house she was found has more than one house? Or is it ambiguous meaning that he could have one or more houses?

Another example:

The drugs were found in one of the men's cars. ?

Does the meaning suggest, as in the other example above, that the man in whose car the drugs were found has more than 1 car? Or again, is it ambiguous suggesting that he may or may not have more than 1 car?

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2  
It should be men's, not mens'. –  RiMMER Dec 25 '11 at 3:45
1  
Note that unlike many questions of this sort, this is not a question about spelling/punctuation. The sentences in question are genuinely ambiguous, in speech as well as writing. –  Colin Fine Dec 25 '11 at 11:11
    
@RiMMERΨ mens'? Are you sure? –  Kris Dec 25 '11 at 13:38
    
Would "one of the criminals' house" (no s) mean a house belonging to one of the criminals, as opposed to one of the houses belonging to any or all of the group? Sounds a little awkward to me, but is there something wrong with the grammar? –  cHao Dec 25 '11 at 15:45
    
@cHao: "Criminals'" is an adjective here which therefore should not affect the rest of the sentence. Try it without that adjective: "one of the house". Doesn't make sense. If there wasn't more than one house to begin with, than there's no "one of" to pick. –  Jay Jan 6 '12 at 15:33

5 Answers 5

up vote 5 down vote accepted

Let us analyze this sentence:

The girl was found in one of the criminals' houses.

There is a group of criminals. At least one of the criminals owns at least 1 house, while the total number of the houses owned in the group is more than 1. Therefore, this group of criminals owns a certain number of houses, in one of which the girl was found.

It's like saying:

This product was created in one of the company's laboratories.

The same way there are many laboratories belonging to 1 entity, "the company", there are many houses belonging to 1 group of people, "the criminals."

Therefore, the sentence is perfectly correct and there isn't really any "more proper" way to express what it says.

Regarding the ambiguity, I wouldn't say it's ambiguous. It simply doesn't specify the number of houses per each person in the group it describes. Therefore it's impossible to determine what number of houses each person owns.

It may be like this:

Criminal 1 owns 3 houses.
Criminal 2 owns 1 house.
Criminal 3 owns 12 houses.

If in one of those houses a girl was found. It really isn't important which person owns how many, therefore the sentence isn't prepared to deal with it in the first place.

EDIT

Adding another example to back up my case:

I'm interested in buying one of the red houses on Lincoln Street.

Explanation example: There are 30 houses on Lincoln Street. 12 of them have the property of "being red." I want one of those!

I'm interested in buying one of the criminals' houses.

Explanation example: There are 1 000 000 houses in my town. 6 of them have the property of "belonging to a group of criminals responsible for robbing a bank." For some reason I want to buy one of those houses!

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I don't think the company/lab analogy quite fits because it's a singular company. But I like the rest of it. –  Lynn Dec 25 '11 at 15:16
    
-1 -- the sentence is genuinely ambiguous. –  slim Jan 5 '12 at 15:08
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As to why someone would want to buy one of the bank robber's houses: Perhaps he's hoping the thief left the money stashed somewhere in the house. :-) –  Jay Jan 5 '12 at 15:31

The first could mean that there were several criminals, that they had several houses and that the girl was found in one of them. The second could mean that there were several men, that they had several cars and that the drugs were found in one of them.

Any writer wanting to make it quite clear that in the first there was one criminal with several houses would be well advised to write The girl was found in one of the houses of one of the criminals and any writer wanting to make it clear that in the second there was one man with several cars would be well advised to write The drugs were found in one of the cars of one the men. Fortunately, the need for either sentence is unlikely to arise very often.

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The girl was found in one of the criminals' houses.

This is read as "The girl was found in one of (the criminals' houses)" — the criminals together have a bunch of houses (maybe each criminal has one house, or each has five houses, or there are three houses all shared by the criminals, or whatever), and the girl was found in one of them.

The natural interpretation (based on the world, not based on grammar) is that each criminal has one house, though other interpretations are possible. It does not imply that the criminal has more than one house.

If you want to make it clear that the particular criminal had only one house, you can write:

The girl was found in the house of one of the criminals.

where "the house" indicates uniqueness. Or if you want to make it clear that the criminal had more than one house, you can use "a house", or:

The girl was found in one of the houses of one of the criminals.

Similarly with

The drugs were found in one of the men's cars.

It means "The drugs were found in one of (the men's cars)" — the men had more than one car in total, and the drug was found in one such car.

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-1 -- the sentences are genuinely ambiguous, and you're trying to claim otherwise. "The girl was found in (one of the criminals)' houses" is a valid reading. –  slim Jan 5 '12 at 15:07
    
@slim: No it's not. "One of" doesn't bind like that. By your logic, "The girl was found in one of the criminal's house" would be a valid sentence, standing for "The girl was found in (one of the criminal)'s house". But such a sentence I have never seen in the wild. –  ShreevatsaR Jan 5 '12 at 17:18

Yes, the sentence, "The girl was found in one of the criminals' houses" is ambiguous. It could mean:

(a) Each criminal owns one house, and the girl was found in the house owned by one of the criminals.

(b) The criminals collectivelly own several houses, that is, the criminals are part of some organization, and that organization owns several houses. The girl was found in one of these.

(c) One or more of the criminals owned several houses, and the girl was found in one of the houses owned by one of the criminals.

(d) It's even possible that it means: One of the criminals owns more than one house, and the girl was found in all of these houses. That doesn't make a lot of sense in this context -- how was she found in more than one house? But it would be quite plauble in a similarly-constructed sentence in a different context, like, "The drugs were found in one of the criminals' houses." That could mean drugs were found in each of his houses. (I suppose in the original sentence, the girl may have been murdered and pieces of her body found scattered among the houses.)

If the ambiguity is important, you can clarify by rewording the sentence. Like, "The girl was found in a house belonging to one of the criminals", versus, "The girl was found in one of the houses owned by the crime syndicate."

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The girl was found in one of the criminals' houses. Correct?

Almost.

One of the criminals owns a house. That is all you know; and any other house is immaterial anyway...because the sentence implies as much. Therefore strike s in houses.

The house, whose ever it is, is not owned by two criminals. Therefore, make one of the criminals' (but not not both criminals) singular.

So you have: the girl was found in one of the criminals's house.

Your can pronounce it aloud, if you must, as if a singular possessive, just as you "heard" in the original example. Or you can pronounce it with the sss-is sound, if your colloquial dialect preference is so inclined.

You need not be distracted for sake of consistency by the (aural) sense of there being a possessive voice incongruity between criminal's and house. The match is actually between one (criminal) and the possessed house.

May I suggest that punctuation would have been the approriate tag. Ambiguity...well, no, because meanings were clear.

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While “make one of the criminals' (but not not both criminals) singular” is singularly opaque, “the girl was found in one of the criminals's house” is singularly and amusingly wrong. –  jwpat7 Oct 17 '12 at 22:35

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