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“On their back” or “on their backs”?

Which of the following is correct/preferable?

  1. Two patients’ excised liver showed no histological evidence of HCC.
  2. Two patients’ excised livers showed no histological evidence of HCC.

Similarly, "they live their happy life" or "they live their happy lives", "they lead a happy life" or "they lead happy lives".

There are lots and lots of this kind of problems in English!

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marked as duplicate by Kris, Matt E. Эллен, MετάEd, mmyers, StoneyB Dec 21 '12 at 15:55

This question has been asked before and already has an answer. If those answers do not fully address your question, please ask a new question.

Sounds fine. Context will help. It can be ambiguous but usually not. People usually don't have more than one liver, so your sentence does not lend itself to be interpreted as though they do. – Mitch Dec 21 '12 at 13:29

I'd write it as "The excised liver sections from two patients showed no histological evidence of HCC". I'd say liver sections here because if you excise the liver, then you have to transplant a new one. But if the excision was for a biopsy, then only a small section of the liver would have been removed. (I'm a medical editor and have been editing this kind of sentence every day for the past 15 years.)

If you say "They lead a happy life", it implies that they share their lives with each other, as, perhaps, a married couple does.

If you say "They lead happy lives", it implies that their lives are separate. I suppose, though, that some readers might insist it's possible to interpret the sentence as meaning that they each lead multiple lives because they have multiple identities (as in The Three Faces of Eve, a book about schizophrenia). Ergo, you might want to say "They each (now) lead a happy life", which implies that they are not related in any way, except that neither one has liver cancer.

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@ Bill Franke: The sentences I adduced are in the context of liver tranplantation. – Yong Dec 21 '12 at 11:17
Oh, okay. Then The excised livers is perfectly okay. :-) – user21497 Dec 21 '12 at 11:21

The phrase is confusing. However, like anything, it can be fixed. :-)

The patients' excised livers showed no histological evidence of HCC. 

"Livers" works if the number of patients were specified in the paragraph. If they weren't, then another sentence would have to be used.

Jack and Jill were in the hospital getting their livers removed. The patients’ excised livers showed no histological evidence of HCC. OR The two patients’ excised liver showed no histological evidence of HCC.

We only have one liver. Don't confuse the reader.

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I think your first sentence works, but for your second sentence, I'd still put livers in the plural: "The two patients' excised livers showed no histological evidence..." We know we have one liver - no reader will be confused. I also think the OP's original sentence is fine, too, fwiw. – JAM Dec 21 '12 at 15:26

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