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When I describe several objects with a common property, do I denote that property in the plural like:

several samples with large surface areas

or do I use the singular form, since it's one property each?

several samples with large surface area

What is the corresponding rule I could look up for these cases?

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    Since there are multiple areas (one per sample, and there are several samples), you need to use the plural. If you said something like "several samples were combined to create a large surface area" (such that you're only talking about a single area), you could use the singular. That said, there are some tricky corner cases: "Several samples displayed a large surface area". I intuitively understand these situations (I'm a native speaker), but I couldn't tell you the rule underlying them. Hopefully another user will be able to. – Dan Bron Jun 24 '15 at 11:21
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    @Dan: That point about the "tricky corner cases" potentially makes this a really intriguing question (for me, at least). Since your example Several samples displayed a large surface area is fine by my, how come Several men had an ugly face isn't? I think we should be told! – FumbleFingers Jun 24 '15 at 11:42
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    Jens, I upvoted @Dan's comment specifically because of the "tricky" bit - I don't fully endorse "you need to use the plural". Google Books contains instances of samples with large surface area and samples with a large surface area, for example, and I don't think these are inherently "incorrect". Valid usage in these contexts seems to be inherently somewhat loosely defined. – FumbleFingers Jun 24 '15 at 12:15
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    @FumbleFingers: While several men had an ugly face may not work, several men had only one arm does. – Peter Shor Jul 2 '15 at 20:53
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    @Jens: I think mine and Peter's examples are "bulletproof" in the sense that no native speaker would argue in favour of several men had an ugly face or against several men had only one arm. But your specific context seems more like a "tricky corner case" where only a pedant would reject either version out of hand. (So I blame you for muddying the waters by focussing on an example that doesn't immediately force us to decide exactly what "rule" is in play for contexts where all native speakers know instinctively what they do and don't like! :) – FumbleFingers Jul 2 '15 at 22:07
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Each sample has its own surface area. Thus, the collection of all of the surface areas corresponding to all of the samples necessarily includes multiple surface areas. Thus, "several samples with large surface areas" is correct.

For future reference, ask yourself if the many subjects (e.g. samples) share a common object or each have their own copy of the object. Thus you have "people with large brains" not "people with large brain."

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Samples is plural, therefore the predicate of the sentence should be plural as well. The fact that the property is the same for all items is inconsequential.

  • There is no such thing as a “plural adjective” in English. – tchrist Jul 2 '15 at 15:58
  • You're right. I think I meant predicate. – Rowan Silverleaf Jul 2 '15 at 16:19
  • I think your logic breaks down at : several men with one arm. By your logic, shouldn't I have to say several men with one arm each? – Peter Shor Jul 2 '15 at 20:57
  • Thank you Rowan. Given Peter's comment though, do you think your answer holds or are there exceptions from the rule? – Jens Jul 2 '15 at 21:20

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