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Should I say

Some people use the word "flat" to describe their phone when its battery is dead.

or

Some people use the word "flat" to describe their phones when their batteries are dead. (I wanted to use "their" here to refer to the phone's instead of the people's)

or

Some people use the word "flat" to describe their phones when their battery is dead. (I wanted to use "their" here to refer to the phone's instead of the people's)

Which one is grammatically correct and why?

  • The first two are equally fine, and there is no difference between them in normal language usage. The third one doesn’t work so well—when ‘phones’ is plural, ‘batteries’ is expected to be plural as well, otherwise it sounds like it’s the person’s battery (car battery, for example) that’s dead, rather than the battery in their phone. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Oct 14 '13 at 10:37
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  • Their can be both plural and used as a non-gender specific replacement for singular his/hers. – Hugo Oct 14 '13 at 11:45
  • I don't see any problem with any of these. Pronouns are normally slurred over, and there is no reason to fuss about whether the batteries belong to the phone or to the phone owner. When it's ambiguous, there's no pragmatic reason to distinguish, and when it's unambiguous, it still implies the other, so no sweat, let's get on to the next sentence, please. – John Lawler Oct 16 '13 at 18:16
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From the comments, it appears that you want to refer to 'some people' for which the pronoun is obviously their) and 'their phones', but use a singular battery. Put like that, it is clear that you will have to rephrase, since there is no correct pronoun for both singular battery and plural phones. Your first example is common, but you should be aware that 'singular they', though commonly used, is also commonly criticised. (e.g. here and here).

Your second is grammatical, but if there is a difference between 'the batteries belonging to the phones' and 'the batteries belonging to the people' (do you really think so?), then it is ambiguous, and cannot be rescued without changing the sentence: when the battery is dead or ...to describe phones with dead batteries would be common rephrasings.

Your third is simply bad English (mixing singular and plural), unless, unusually, all the phones (or, of course, all the people) share one battery.

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The second example sentence should read "...describe their phones when the batteries are dead" and in the third, obviously, "...describe their phone (no 's') when the battery is dead. Otherwise it sounds as if you're saying the owner of the phone/s has a dead battery himself - 'their' is used to indicate possessive (the owner of the phone) 'the' refers to the battery within the phone, no possessive required.

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  • But what I'm asking here is a grammar question on whether a noun after the determiner their should take in the form of singular or of plural. I'm not looking for a workaround to avoid ambiguity in the sentence such as introducing the determiner the and replacing it with their to better indicate that it is the batteries of the phones I'm trying refer to in the expressions. – user53578878979080099421313131 Oct 14 '13 at 11:26
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    I don't know which 'their' you're referring to, their phone or their batteries (meaning the phones). All I can reiterate as a native English speaker is you would never use two theirs in one sentence in this manner. not necessary and very confusing. And it can be either plural or singular after their (their gloves, their dogs, their phone, their scarf). – bamboo Oct 14 '13 at 11:31
  • It's funny how your answer is not answering my question and you are trying to bring in the argument that you are a native English speaker and my sentence is too ambiguous that you couldn't figure out which "their" I'm referring to when I'd made it explicit by stating it in the brackets and informed you that this is a pure grammar question concerning the fact that if a noun after the determiner their should take in the form of singular or of plural. – user53578878979080099421313131 Oct 14 '13 at 11:35
  • Isn't bamboo allowed to address other issues he feels are relevant, on a site devoted to English Language and Usage? I wouldn't quibble about the ambiguity he correctly points out - it makes little difference to understanding here. I could probably find a case where it did lead to confusion if I could be bothered, though. – Edwin Ashworth Oct 14 '13 at 11:44
  • @EdwinAshworth I'm not quibbling. I'm simply informing him that I'm more concern about the grammar in this case and thus I didn't upvote this answer of his. – user53578878979080099421313131 Oct 14 '13 at 11:49
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This is a typical instance of poor sentence construction in that the singular is used to artificially emphasise a point which then leaves a requirement for a common-gender personal pronoun singular which we don't have in English. Example - "Every child should drink their milk" Or worse - "A suicide bomber blew themselves up....."

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    You're a bundle of joy this morning (GMT). – Mari-Lou A Oct 15 '13 at 6:38
  • Would you prefer "Some people use the word 'flat' to describe his phone"? Even if you don't believe the singular "they" is acceptable, that "his" is totally wrong, and option 2 is perfectly grammatical (and is also the version that sounds best to me). – Peter Shor Oct 16 '13 at 17:57

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