What is the difference between:

they point their finger at the tree.


they point their fingers at the tree.

Do they have different meanings?


It depends on how many people there are. As I'm sure you know, "their" in English is the possessive for a group of people or a single person.

They point their finger at the tree.

With multiple people, this would imply some sort of collective finger, meaning that they all point with a single finger across all of the people (which doesn't really make sense). For a single person however, it would mean that they point with a single finger, most likely their index finger.

They point their fingers at the tree.

With multiple people, this would imply that they are all individually pointing at the tree. With a single person it would actually mean that the person is using a number of fingers to point at the tree, although this isn't as common as just using the index finger.

As is discussed in the comments, there is also the idiomatic phrase "to point the finger at", but in this case the phrase is probably literal (as they are most likely not accusing the tree) and as such would use "fingers". If a group of people accused someone of something however, one would use

They point the finger at (the person)

It's in this context that the singular "finger" would be used even for a collective simply because of the nature of the idiom. Examples of the use of this idiom can be found on the Collins Online Dictionary such as with the following quote (emphasis mine)

They also point the finger at individual health units for not being more outspoken at the time. Globe and Mail (2003)

This was the first example I could find using "they" compared to a specified person or set of people, but the only other examples that I could find all used "point the finger" rather than "point my/your/his/her/our/their finger" specifically in the context of this idiom.

  • 2
    But I think we can also, in some circumstances, consider there to be a composite verb 'to point a finger at'. 'Several people are pointing a finger at the role played by the driver of the blue car'. – WS2 Jan 9 '14 at 9:31
  • @WS2 I agree, the only issue I had was concerning the use of "their finger" possessively for a group of people – Matthew Champion Jan 9 '14 at 9:35
  • Yes, their finger can also occur in an idiomatic sense, why not? Some authors may go a step further and say point their collective finger at :) – Kris Jan 9 '14 at 12:41
  • @Kris To me, "their finger" would represent some kind of collective finger. If everyone was pointing at a tree, I would expect to hear "we are pointing our fingers at the tree" or "we point at the tree", not "we point our finger at the tree". "Their" is a collective possessive, requiring "fingers". I do however agree with you that the phrase "point the finger at sb./smt.", would use "the finger", even for a collective, but I disagree that it would be "point their finger at" because the phrase would be "they point the finger at him/her". The OP's phrase sounds literal to me. – Matthew Champion Jan 9 '14 at 12:44
  • @Kris Examples that I have found seem to use the phrase "they point the finger". An example can be found on the Collins Online Dictionary, with the quote They also point the finger at individual health units for not being more outspoken at the time. Globe and Mail (2003) That was the first one I came across that used the specific word "they" but the other examples I could find used "point the finger" rather than "point their finger". – Matthew Champion Jan 9 '14 at 13:13

To point a finger at something/someone is an idiom (accuse, suggest that someone is guilty).

Also, point the finger at someone: Fig. to blame someone; to identify someone as the guilty person.

When used in the idiomatic sense, it is singular, finger, the only exception being the compact phrasal verb point fingers (at): "Levin did oppose going to war there, and he says it's probably not the most constructive thing to point fingers now."; "Sadly when a tragedy occurs, people want to point fingers and try to sensationalize the disaster. "

When used in a literal sense where physically pointing a finger is meant, the plural comes into use, fingers.

The author's intended meaning and the context will determine whether the singular or the plural is required.

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