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I was perusing the forums of a video game I play. I began reading a thread about the lore of the game, because a few things lore-wise are left pretty vague. Two individuals got into an argument about the use of the word "masters" by a character in the game.

The sentence is as follows: Character: "The Tenno will surpass their former masters."

Now, guy A says that "masters" is referring to a single entity & Tenno is inclusive of the guy saying it. Guy B says, no it's plural so it's referring to multiple people.

So, to elaborate on my question, is there ANY way whatsoever that "masters" in it's plural form could be used in reference to a single person? The reason I'm bringing this question here is because, based off the lore provided & inferences made by the player base & typically agreed upon by the majority, it is believed that the "character" is inclusive in "The Tenno" (that's part of that vague lore I mentioned earlier). Their was a group several hundred years ago that were the masters of the Tenno (which are a faction btw), but now, more recently, they have a single master, a single entity. I'm sorry if none of this makes any sense or I've provided a bunch of extraneous details.

If all of that is too confusing guy A made this statement: "It's quite possible syntax-wise to mention a singular object as plural. Trust me, I'm a linguist." (I think he meant to say "to mention a singular object with a plural word). Is this possible?

Thank you for your time. I can provide a link to the forum page if desired.

  • It seems to me that the implication is "as many masters as there are", i.e. the referent might or might not consist of more than one master, depending on how many of them actually exist. – Erik Kowal Feb 27 '15 at 10:48
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    Sounds like guy A is bending over backwards to me. 'masters' is plainly referring to multiple people. Otherwise they would have said 'master'. – ElendilTheTall Feb 27 '15 at 10:53
  • Thank you guys for your input, Erik's answer is entirely plausible, while your answer Elendil, is most likely the case. – B has to know things. Feb 27 '15 at 11:04
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    When someone on the internet say "Trust me, I'm a <credentialed expert in this field>", they're always lying. Trust me, I know. I'm a certified digital sociologist. – Dan Bron Feb 27 '15 at 11:22
  • To answer your last question, headquarters says that you can treat a plural object as singular, but only for certain words. – Peter Shor Feb 27 '15 at 11:35
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Consider this example:

Judges on the various federal District Courts of Appeal are beginning to rebel against their masters, the Supreme Court.

Here we have one entity (the Supreme Court) referred to as something plural (masters). It is indisputable that the Supreme Court has ultimate authority over the decisions of the various courts of appeal. But if the sentence had been cast simply in terms of the relationship of the courts of appeal to the higher court, I would have expected the wording to be along these lines:

The various federal District Courts of Appeal are beginning to rebel against their master, the Supreme Court.

That wording presents us with entities of the same kind—courts—and the courts rebelling are doing so against the court (singular) above them. In order to make "masters" work in my first example, I think I'd have to make explicit that the multiple entities at both hierarchical levels were judges (or justices), not judges at one level and a court at the other. This would work:

Judges on the various federal District Courts of Appeal are beginning to rebel against their nine masters, the justices of the Supreme Court.

Of course, you can have people (appellate court judges) at the lower level and a court (the Supreme Court) at the higher level, but in that case, it seems to me, logic requires you to refer to the court as "their master," not as "their masters." The same goes for the exotic Tenno and their nameless former masters: If the former masters are to be understood as a single unitary entity, it doesn't make sense to refer to them as "masters" rather than "master." So the sentence

The Tenno will surpass their former masters.

strongly indicates that the "masters" are to be understood not as a single unitary entity but as a collection of individuals, each of whom was a master or a member of the former class of masters.

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The Tenno will surpass their former masters.

This could refer to a single person if the speaker is under the impression that the Tenno were taught by different people and the reality is that they were taught by one. In that case, it is not the intent of the speaker to be referring to an individual.

In some cases, this might be used humorously if the one master has a split personality.

Added following question

Is this the original text or a translation (perhaps from Japanese)?

  • This is the original text. It's a western IP. – B has to know things. Mar 1 '15 at 4:54
  • Thanks. The original language being English, there is nothing to add to the answer. I can't think of any other circumstances where the speaker would intentionally refer to a single person with the plural "masters". – Paul Rowe Mar 2 '15 at 6:13

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