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James is giving a tour of his farm to some of his friends. Which sentence is correct:

James introduces some of the animals on the farm: "This is Elmer, the pig... That's Mini, the mouse, and that duck is called Daffy... "

James tells his friends about the life of those living on the farm. His friends follow each word.

or

James introduces some of the animals on the farm: "This is Elmer, the pig... That's Mini, the mouse, and that duck is called Daffy... "

James tells his friends about the lives of those living on the farm. His friends follow each word.

I understand that the singular of life is more appropriate when discussing a shared life, but this distinction is less clear in my example sentence. We're assuming there are many different animals living on the farm.

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What is the wider context, Mohammed? Is James a naturalist, a lad helping on the farm, an anthropomorphic horse? I'm not sure why you're using those instead of the animals ; unless it's used in contrast to other animals already mentioned (or a super-set), those seems to connote familiarity (and hence personality). In that case, lives, stressing individuals, does seem more appropriate (though grammatically, either is fine). –  Edwin Ashworth Sep 26 '12 at 19:24
    
@EdwinAshworth, good points. I added context to my question. James is giving a tour of his farm to his friends. Notice the new sentence discussing the animals with a measure of familiarity. –  Mohamad Sep 26 '12 at 19:35
    
See my answer, with related information on the ELU question Everyone Else's Lives. I think since the animals are anthropomorphized (with names), life is still preferable. –  JLG Sep 26 '12 at 19:48
    
@tchrist, while I agree with you, I want to point out that the sentences are displayed on different screens. Each sentence compliments an illustration. It seemed to me that they were appropriate in that context, but upon further thought I agree with you and will advise for their removal. –  Mohamad Sep 26 '12 at 20:00
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How shall I characterize @tchrist's strictures? As, perhaps ... let me think ... excessive? "Points of suspension" are not, to be sure, much used in formal expository prose, because such writing is presumed to be fully considered before it is set down. But they are very common in fiction, in drama, and in reported speech to mark pauses occasioned by thought, doubt, hesitation, or (as in OP's example) change of direction; and such use is entirely proper. See this, p. 261 –  StoneyB Sep 27 '12 at 0:25
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2 Answers 2

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If James was talking about the daily woes of the farm animals as a collective, then he would be talking about their life on the farm. If he was instead talking about the individual trials and tribulations of Daffy, Minnie, and Elmer, he would then be talking about their lives on the farm.

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It should be noted that there are wide variations in singular vs. plural usage among English speakers, even apart from any intended difference in meaning.

Speakers from the UK are much more likely to say

The team are playing the game of their lives

than AmerE speakers who prefer

The team is playing the game of its life

UK and AusE and even CanE speakers generally seem to accept both as valid (the BBC can be found to use #1), but many AmerE speakers will simply judge that #1 is incorrect.

Compare Google searches on "the team are losing" and "the time is losing" and "the government are promising to" and "the government is promising to" and "the company are planning" you can see some patterns.

PS If you believed in the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis you might expect that it would be the American speakers that preferred #1 instead of marking it as incorrect, given the central role of individualism in the country's political ideologies and cultural conceptions of itself.

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Good point. Interestingly, though, Google shows that the "game of their life" is more than ten times more common than "the game of their lives." So that's the change I'd make instead. That also brings up the interesting fact that "they" can have a single "life." More grist for the mill. –  Merk Sep 28 '12 at 4:05
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