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In a situation where say a group (or at least a plurality) of men is being addressed — for example on a sign passed by many married men — which is correct?

  • "Remind your wife."

or

  • "Remind your wives."
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    "Remind your wives" definitely sounds correct to me. You'd hear teachers say "get your books out" instead of "get your book out".
    – Einheri
    Commented Dec 11, 2014 at 4:20
  • Simple solution... 1 wife per woman/man: Please remind your respective wive blah. Many husbands per man/woman: Pls remind your respective husbands. Students. please push in your respective stools under the lab table. Commented Dec 11, 2014 at 4:54
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    I've incorporated the edit, but reading a sign is always done by each man on his own: he reads it to himself (and presumably he may be expected to have only one wife). When standing in front of a group of men and addressing them together, the situation may be different.
    – Andrew Leach
    Commented Dec 11, 2014 at 21:57
  • @Einheri But you'd also hear teachers say 'Hold the protractor down with one hand, and with your other hand, mark the angle with a pencil.' With classes of more than one student. Commented May 14, 2020 at 11:31
  • @Phil Sweet I've edited, broadening the title and body questions – felicitously, I believe. Commented Feb 6, 2021 at 15:07

5 Answers 5

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The answer stated above as being the 'grammatical' choice sadly gives the impression that the alternative is wrong. It is not wrong (where no real scope for misinterpretation would ensue) to address the (common) individual within a group: 'Hold the protractor down with one hand.'

In this particular case, while 'Remind your wives' is certainly not wrong, 'Remind your wife' will almost certainly not add any confusion and would only be labelled incorrect by prescriptivists above a certain level. I can think of no 'grammatical rule' proscribing and am familiar with the acceptable usage of employing correctly formulated singular constructions when addressing more than one in a group (especially a largish or large group).

Dorgeloh and Wanner, in Syntactic Variation and Genre, state that

In [a] common strategy, speakers may use singular constructions [to simulate a 1-to-1 situation] despite a manifestly plural audience. Well-known instances of this are address forms such as Dear Reader in novels, editorials and so on. The pragmatic effect is quite clear: [t]he use of singular forms can be used to simulate closeness or intimacy, states which are usually absent from mass-medial communication. While 1-to-1 simulation is arguably easier where there is no physical co-presence of the addressees (for example, in the written medium or in TV or radio broadcasts), it may also occur in face-to-face situations, if the audience is sufficiently large[: t]hus sermons or speeches are situations in which ... 1-to-1 simulation may be used by the speaker.

The device of at times addressing the individual within the crowd was used in Hebrew by Moses (and his Boss), in Deuteronomy, as T A Lenchak, and doubtless other commentators, point out.

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  • @Roaring Fish If you wish to advance your argument (not accepted by all linguists) that 'ungrammaticality' and 'unacceptability' (of a structure in English) are distinct concepts, post a relevant question. I would be more than willing to add my thoughts, with references. Different terminologies (should one use generative-ungrammatical, US-ungrammatical etc for precision) would have to be rationalised before one could even start a debate on how we judge (and who 'we' are) a sentence say to be in the 'established' / 'divided usage' / 'unestablished' / 'dubious' / 'unacceptable' category. Commented Dec 13, 2014 at 9:50
  • ... (I've chosen Svartvik's suggested gradience for as he puts it 'sentences [are] not simply right or wrong, but often somewhere in between these two extremes'. He is wise in acknowledging that the 'S1 is unarguably correct / agreed synonyms, but S2 is unarguably incorrect / agreed synonyms' is a woefully inadequate approach.) Commented Dec 13, 2014 at 10:01
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In this case, "remind your wives" is appropriate--assuming it's not one woman with many husbands.

It depends on how the item is shared (or not).

If you have 1 pizza with 8 slices, you and your 7 friends can share the single pizza. All 8 of you can eat the pizza.

If you have 1 cookie and 7 friends, that cookie will be very difficult to share among the 8 of you. But if you have 8 cookies, you and your friends can eat your multiple cookies. Each of you can individually eat a cookie.

If this comes up in the future, think about if it's something that multiple people can use/eat/drive/etc. at the same time.

I have to share an office with 2 coworkers, but we each have a desk of our own. Sometimes our secretary will say, "I put it on your desk" (my specific desk), and sometimes she will say, "I put it on your desks" (all three desks).

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When addressing the group as a whole, you generally use the plural form. However, you can convert to the singular form by using each, as in

Each of you should remind your wife ...

Each man should remind his wife ...

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This is a common question and the use of the singular or plural is not usually a problem. However, it sometimes is and the problem is that English handles this type of construction very loosely and relies heavily on context, thus the potential for ambiguity is often, but not always, present.

Some languages have a possessive that specifically refers to the subject or specifically to the object and sentences like “John met David and he gave him his book” are comprehensible, whereas, in English, we do not know who gave whose book to whom.

In most cases, it does not matter which collocation you use as

(i) the listener/reader will understand from the context what is meant or

(ii) the distinction is unimportant to the comprehension of the whole or

(iii) common sense gives the answer. As is seen below, we only have one head and we have two arms, but we can have multiple cats and, sometimes, multiple wives and husbands.

Complications arise when either the subject (or the object) has other contextual meanings, e.g. does “boys/men” mean “some boys/men” or “all boys/men” or is it a generalisation?

Consider

“The children received knives.” This may mean

All the children received several knives each.

All the children received one knife.

There was a pile of knives and the children could take as many knives as they wanted.

Knives were given to the children until the supply of knives ran out, so some children did not get a knife [and some children had more than one knife].

In the following, I have italicised the completely unambiguous sentences. The other sentences of this type are best avoided if the context is important to the comprehension of the whole.

NB substituting, where possible, “his/their” for “the/a/some/all,” or a bare plural, may change the meaning.

Finite objects - objects for which there is a referential quantity:

The:

1 Single subject + single, finite object – The boy puts his head up.

2 (?) Single subject + plural, non-finite object – The boy puts his heads up. (If “head” in [2] means “Plaster models of a head that some of the boys had bought at a shop” then this is correct.)

3 Plural subject + plural, finite object – The boys put their heads up. ((i) If “head” in [2] means “Plaster models of a head that some of the boys had bought at a shop” then this is correct. (ii) As we only have one natural head, then this is unambiguous.)

4 Plural subject + single, finite object - The boys put their head up. (See [2], otherwise this is wrong.)

5 Single subject + plural, finite object – The boy puts his arms up. = both of his arms

6 Single subject + single, finite object - The boy puts his arm up. (one arm)

7 Plural subject + plural, finite object – The boys put their arms up.

8 Plural subject + single, finite object – The boys put their arm up. (Possible in context, cf. [2] above, and example below.)

The last two are interesting in a particular context:

The terrorist burst into the room and shouted “Who wants to die!”

The boys put their arms up. = The boys surrendered.

The boys put their arm up. = The boys volunteered to die.

A/An

9 Single subject + single, finite object – A boy puts his head up.

10 Plural subject + plural, finite object – Boys put their heads up.

  1. Plural subject + single, finite object - Boys put their head up. (Possible in context, cf. [2] above)

12 Single subject + plural, finite object – A boy puts his arms up.

13 Single subject + single, finite object - A boy puts his arm up.

14 Plural subject + plural, finite object – Boys put their arms up.

15 Plural subject + single, finite object – Boys put their arm up. (Possible in context, cf. [2] above and in the example.)

Non-finite objects- object for which there is no referential quantity:

16 Single subject + single, non-finite object – A boy puts his cat in the box.

17 Single subject + plural, non-finite object – A boy puts his cats in the box.

18 Plural subject + plural, non-finite object – Boys put their cats in the box.

19 Plural subject + single, non-finite object - Boys put their cat in the box.

20 Single subject + plural, non-finite object – A boy puts his cats in the box.

21 Single subject + single, non-finite object - A boy puts his cat in the box.

Potentially non-finite objects- object for which there is no absolute referential quantity, although there may be a cultural, or other, referent.

22 Single subject + single, non-finite object – A/the man puts his wife in the box.

23 Single subject + plural, non-finite object – A/the man puts his wives in the box.

24 Plural subject + plural, non-finite object – [The] men put their wives in the box.

25 Plural subject + single, non-finite object – [The] men put their wife in the box.

The understanding of the above is dependent upon knowing whether “men/the/a man” is (i) a generalisation (men in general/males generally,) or (ii) is specifically referring to one man or (ii) a few of the men, and (iii) whether polygamy or polyandry is practised.

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"Remind your wives" is the grammatically correct choice.

"Remind your wife" would imply the whole group shared a common wife. It's hard to imagine, so let's use some other term to understand the difference.

Remind your supervisor
Remind your supervisors

In the first case, the implication is the whole group has a common supervisor. In the second case, it implies that each individual has their own supervisor.

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    ... or rather, it means that the individuals in the group have collectively more than one supervisor. If everybody in the group fell under one of three supervisors, you'd still use the plural. Commented Dec 11, 2014 at 4:32
  • @PeterShor - agreed. upvote.
    – Tushar Raj
    Commented Dec 11, 2014 at 5:12

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