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All my life, I have been confused with choosing plural or singular form to represent one-one correspondence notion.

Only those who qualify will be awarded a certificate.


Only those who qualify will be awarded certificates.


Another example, let us consider the following:

"Each student gets one pencil". But it becomes ambiguous if I rewrite in plural form as "Students get pencils".

I hope someone can give me a general rule to overcome my confusion. :-)

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This is a great question. – Jimi Oke Dec 16 '10 at 3:01

To use the "certificates" example:

The first one applies if only one certificate is to be given per person.

The second one applies if more than one certificate is to be given per person.

Similarly for the "pencils" example.

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So to represent 1-1 correspondence, I must use singular to singular form, right? – xport Dec 16 '10 at 3:16
Like I said, if you aren't giving them more than one certificate or pencil, use the singular form. – user730 Dec 16 '10 at 3:37
Just to confirm: By "only one certificate is to be given" you mean per person, right? :-) – ShreevatsaR Dec 16 '10 at 5:06
@xport: We can replace "a certificate" with "the certificate". Depending on your assumptions, you may also need to change "those who qualify" to "the one who qualifies". – Mitch Schwartz Dec 16 '10 at 7:23
I disagree that there's any rule about "per person" for the form of the object. Consider "Only those who qualify will make moon landings." It doesn't imply that each such person will make multiple landings. Nor does use of "a moon landing" imply that a person can't make multiple landings. I think Rhodri's answer more accurately describes usage. – mgkrebbs Mar 6 '11 at 20:56

English is slightly ambiguous here. The nature of the mapping between the (passive) subjects and the objects isn't inherent to this construction, there's just a strong tendency in how it is used.

We would generally understand

Only those who qualify will be awarded a certificate.

to mean that each person who qualifies gets an individual certificate. It's not impossible (but it would be very unusual) to use it to mean that all the qualifiers will get a single certificate to share between them. If you wanted to emphasize that there is a 1-1 mapping you would need to say something like

Only those who qualify will be awarded a certificate each.

or something similar. It does look odd in this particular instance, which suggests I've done it wrong :-)

I would also understand

Only those who qualify will be awarded certificates.

to probably mean that each qualifier gets one certificate, but it would also be common for it to mean that each qualifier gets several certificates. It could also mean that some qualifiers had to share one or more certificates between them, though again that would be very unusual. All that the plural "certificates" allows us to be certain of is that more than one certificate is involved overall.

Your other examples have qualifiers on them:

"Each student gets one pencil"

Using "each" here enforces the 1-1 mapping, where "students get one pencil" has only custom on its side, and "students get pencils" is ambiguous.

Having said all that, the "a certificate" version strongly implies the 1-1 mapping that you're after, but the "certificates" version weakly implies it too.

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I strongly disagree with @J. M.'s pedantic overapplication of logic to matters of grammar.

There is no "general rule" dictating that only the singular should be used if multiple subjects are each related to a singular object. It's purely a matter of style.

There may in fact be specific contexts where the singular (or indeed plural) is actually preferred, but offhand I can't come up with one. If anyone else can (as opposed to simply disagreeing with my basic point), I'd be really interested in considering why that might be.

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I hesitate to support your argument because, while I agree that J.M.'s answer is perhaps a tad pedantic, I doubt you could ever go wrong abiding by it - at worst you'd sound a bit stuffy. Nevertheless, the phrase "most children have mobile phones" is, in my experience, more common than the alternative, along with many in its vein. – wyatt Aug 24 '11 at 11:45
@wyatt: Not exactly scientific, but Google hits suggest "...children have mobile..." (plural) is slightly more common than if I include "a" to force singular. But you obviously think there's at least some possible context where one usage or the other could be called "wrong", whereas I'm still looking for even a single case where one might be significantly preferred. Bearing in mind I give no credence to pointless pedantry on this issue, so it would have to be a case where almost everyone agrees on the preferred usage. – FumbleFingers Aug 24 '11 at 15:53

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