This is the same grammatical issue raised in another thread, except the examples there were not ideal, so the syntactic problem was side-stepped in favor of the semantic one.

Consider this example instead. A man has a car. His wife has a car. Together, they have two cars. He says:

"We both have a car."

Sounds perfectly natural, right? Unambiguous, even. Yet the mismatch between "We" and "car" is weird when you think about it, at least to me.

Luckily in this case, there are ready alternatives:

"We each have a car."
"We both have our own cars."

Both sound vastly superior to me.

Sometimes, however, there are no obvious alternatives. Take, for example, the opening of the song Different Drum (delightfully sung by Linda Ronstadt, by the way):

You and I travel to the beat of a different drum.

Well, actually, I suppose you could say:

You and I travel to the beats of our different drums.

But there have been cases where I couldn't readily apply my fixes. I just can't think of them at the moment.

My requests for you:

  1. Does this issue bother you (whether before or after my pointing it out)?
  2. If not, why not? (I'll be grateful if you can convince me and liberate me from these pedantic concerns.) If it does bother you, then do you approve of my proposed solutions. Feel free to suggest some of your own.
  3. (optional) Make up a sentence that doesn't lend itself easily to the already mentioned solutions, and suggest a way to fix it.

Thank you.

  • Perhaps look into the topic of "joint coordination" versus "distributive coordination". -- Now, do you have a specific question that you want us to help you with? – F.E. Mar 2 '14 at 6:28
  • @F.E. Found nothing on "joint coordination" and one thread relating to "distributive coordination," but it's about articles. My specific questions are whether this is a problem and if it is, how to fix it. – bongbang Mar 2 '14 at 6:41
  • 3
    The original "different drum" line could mean that you and I travel to the beat of the same drum, but it's different from everyone else. A plural object is needed to disambiguate this, e.g. You and I travel to the beats of different drums. – Barmar Mar 2 '14 at 7:13
  • @Barmar: Exactly. And though the usual idiom is '[He] marches to the beat of a different drum' and idioms tend to be fairly fixed, the verb here may be inflected for tense and even switched within narrow limits. 'You and I march to the beat of a different drum' means we're a minority of two. 'You and I march to the beat of different drums' (with which I see no problem) means we're divided in our beliefs / practices. As you say. – Edwin Ashworth Mar 2 '14 at 8:48
  • @Edwin From the context, the songwriter likely meant to say, "We are divided," so we are in agreement that the original sentence is not ideal. And yet most people don't even seem to notice the problem in this popular song. It's curious. Are we being to pedantic? – bongbang Mar 2 '14 at 14:52

In We both have a car, the indefinite article can be understood as having generic reference. It designates any one instance of the class ‘car’.

We both have our own cars creates its own ambiguity, in that it leaves open the possibility that each might have more than one car. We both have a car means that each has a car and one car only. A speaker who shared a car with someone else would say so.


" We both have a car" seems natural to me. I think overanalysing sentence structures is not reasonable. But you could look for sentences with "we both" in the British National Corpus. Or if you really feel uneasy with your first formulation you might say "Either of us has a car".

  • We both have a car sounds to me like we share one car. – Barmar Mar 2 '14 at 7:10
  • I rather think that is an interpretation and a bit far-fetched. But I agree there might be some people who would consider the sentence as ambiguous. But in the case of a common car I would say " we use / have a common car" or something like that. As to your objection only a test of let us say a hundred people wold show if there are any who would understand your possibility. – rogermue Mar 2 '14 at 7:25
  • I think most people would use each rather than both to make it clear that they're separate cars. And they would leave the word out entirely when it's a shared car, i.e. We have a car. – Barmar Mar 2 '14 at 7:28
  • Agreed. "each/either" are possible. But the National Corpus has structures with "We both had + a singular object" and the authors were not afraid that they might be misunderstood. – rogermue Mar 2 '14 at 7:44
  • Yes. Never confuse English with what logic demands. – Edwin Ashworth Mar 2 '14 at 8:50

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.