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My question is as the title says: Is it allowed for a pronoun and its referent to have different plurality? A specific example I am considering is a sentence like this:

I love this cookie so much that I bought dozens of them and distributed them to my friends.

I am curious whether this kind of sentence is grammatically correct or not.

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4 Answers 4

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Hmm... Did you consider that "them"'s referrent might be unexpressed? Them refers not to cookie, but to "cookies", the plural form of the noun expressed in the sentence and whose existence is implied.

Not all pronouns belong to nouns that are expressed elsewhere in the sentence. "Are they going to help?" "They" is all by itself. Or try: "The man called and said that they would fix everything." "They" does not mean "man". It means some men/workers at the company.

I can also assure you that "cookie" here is not collective. If it read family: "I love this family so much that I hugged all of them". "All" quite obviously, and ridiculously, pretends to mean all families, not all members of this particular family.

I think some people here missed this, hiding in plain sight.

One more thing is that, a hundred years ago, is was perfectly common to just use the singular: "I like this cookie so much that I bought dozens of it..." Nowadays this sounds kind of stilted, but it's probably better English.

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  • Thank you for pointing this out. One question is... I guess that those sentences are examples of singular they, so do you mean that my example falls into this category as well? Aug 2, 2015 at 19:32
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    If it read family: "I love this family so much that I hugged all of them". "All" quite obviously, and ridiculously, pretends to mean all families, not all members of this particular family. <== er, perhaps you've made a mistake here? That sentence sounds okay to me, as the interpretation of I hugged each individual member of that family is reasonable here, pragmatic-wise, imo.
    – F.E.
    Aug 2, 2015 at 19:32
  • One more thing is that, a hundred years ago, is was perfectly common to just use the singular: "I like this cookie so much that I bought dozens of it..." Nowadays this sounds kind of stilted, but it's probably better English. <== er, why would you think that version with "it" is "probably better English"?
    – F.E.
    Aug 2, 2015 at 20:13
  • If context made it clear that we were talking about individual family members, we would have a case like the original sentence. But if you try to imagine the sentence in isolation, it would mean all families, or would be highly ambiguous at least... that's what I find, anyway. And on the "it" version, since we are treating the item as a class (this kind of cookie, this kind of car), it would be consistent to keep it singular throughout. It's just our prejudice that modern usage no longer likes multiples with singular items... Aug 2, 2015 at 20:46
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    To Sangchul: You don't have a singular they, since your "they" is definitely referring to more than one cookie (you say dozens of them). The singular they is when people say something like, "Each student should do their homework," if "they" means only one person. It's a debated point, mostly because English has no gender-neutral pronoun, and the old practice of just using "he" is no longer politically acceptable. Also, sometimes people just like to use "they" even when the gender is known. Aug 2, 2015 at 20:51
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Your example sounds just fine to my ear, but if I replace the subject and verb in the sentence, I can create a less acceptable sentence, such as:

  • I like this teacher so much that I befriended dozens of them.

Or, even more absurd sounding:

  • I like Mike so much that I befriended dozens of them.

The absurdity owes to the pronoun-antecedent disagreement, and, in looking at these two examples, my rationale for the discordance is this:

The antecedent-pronoun disagreement is more pronounced in cases where there is a low degree of (or no) fungibility in the antecedent. That is, in cases where the antecedent is not interchangeable--there is only one Michael Jordan, therefore Michael Jordan is not fungible. Fungibility, then, is not a grammatical necessity, but an issue of euphony.

Here's another example with an entirely fungible antecedent:

  • This is the first dollar I ever made, and I've made a lot of them in my time.

Since the dollar holds no singular significance, it's very easy for us to see it as one or as many just like it.

However, when the antecedent becomes less fungible, when it draws up a more distinct person or thing, it can no longer be lumped in with others just like it without a stretch of the imagination. Here are some examples of antecedents and pronouns that become increasingly less fungible. See if you start to hear where the antecedent-pronoun discordance comes into play.

  • I like this Lamborghini so much that I bought dozens of them. (Most fungible, most acceptable.)
  • I like this Lamborghini Countache so much that I bought dozens of them. (Less fungible, still acceptable.
  • I like the 1985 Lamborghini Countach so much that I bought dozens of them. (Least fungible, starting to sound less acceptable but could possibly pass.)
  • I like Michael Jordan's 1985 Lamborghini Countach so much that I bought dozens of them. (not fungible, not acceptable).

I've been looking for something authoritative to support or negate your example sentence, but I haven't found anything yet. I'll update if I do. For now, I think your best bet is to run some sample pronoun-antecedents through whatever sentence structure you've got and see where the disagreement becomes too discordant to use. I suspect it will occur at that point where the fungibility goes away.

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  • er, consider: "I like this Lamborghini so much that I bought two of them", and "I like the 1985 Lamborghini Countach so much that I bought two of them". Also, "I like Michael Jordan's 1985 Lamborghini Countach so much that I bought two of them, one for my wife and one for my favorite niece." They all sound okay to me, and seem to have the same level of acceptability. :)
    – F.E.
    Aug 1, 2015 at 6:30
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    This answer is useful. I say that with reservations because, as with so many of the answers to questions on this forum, the answer equivocates conventional grammaticality and contextual acceptability. The two, conventional grammaticality and contextual acceptability are not equivalent, and those asking questions are done a disservice by the equivocation.
    – JEL
    Aug 2, 2015 at 16:53
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    Fungibility may make the content of some examples more plausible (tasting one delicious cookie leads me to buy more of that type), but this isn't relevant to the grammar of the pronominal reference. Nice try.
    – Greg Lee
    Aug 2, 2015 at 16:54
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    @tylerharms, my mistake, due to the fact the OP's question directly concerned grammaticality. I had already upvoted your answer because of its general usefulness, and meant only to explain my upvote. And you're quite right about style sufficing for an assessment of the question.
    – JEL
    Aug 2, 2015 at 18:09
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    I think the construct in the question can be used when a single item is considered representative of a class. Teachers aren't assumed to be similar, so liking one teacher would not suggest that you like other teachers. But Oreo cookies are all pretty similar, so once you've tasted one you would know whether you like them all. This allows you to use them with the implied antecedent cookies like them.
    – Barmar
    Aug 3, 2015 at 18:18
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In general, a plural pronoun should go with a plural referent. However, there are a number of exceptions to this rule, and I believe this is one of them.

In particular, you can use a number of them, dozens of them, hundreds of them, many of them, and so on with a singular referent. Consider the following sentences, all taken from the internet (found by searching "but dozens/hundreds of them").

I know of an orchard which is suffering for want of cultivation ; and not only one, but scores of them.

Take the new trend in which high schools are naming not one valedictorian but dozens of them.

He wasn't just raising enough for one wheelchair, but dozens of them.

Top athletes don't share a single talent gene, but hundreds of them.

There's not just one layer of mudcracks, but hundreds of them.

You may not have heard of a beefalo, but hundreds of them are causing trouble in America's Grand Canyon.

I don't think there is anything wrong with any of these sentences.

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  • Not one of those examples, but a half dozen of this, fail to model the OP's example. I was hoping for insight into count noun exceptions to the usual pronoun and antecedent number agreement, but found none.
    – JEL
    Jul 31, 2015 at 18:21
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The problem, I think, is not so much in the disagreement (or not) in number, as in the reversal of sequence in the verb tenses and the misuse of "this"

  • I like this cookie

You like this particular instance, not the abstract collective "type" of cookie. "Like" is in the present tense, and this cookie means the cookie that is present; i.e. here, now, in front of you (maybe even in your hand—or the part of it you haven't eaten yet, anyway). <-- oops, an ambiguous pronoun reference !

  • .. I bought a dozen of them.. This was clearly in the past. You already bought dozens.

But this reverses cause and effect—it says that a present situation caused a past event. This is impossible. So the speaker must have tasted the cookie, and then later bought "dozens".

The proper temporal and causal sequence, and a possible solution to the pronoun problem could be expressed as

  • I liked that cookie so much that I bought dozens [of them/it/cookies like it] and distributed them to my friends.

The question of pronoun matching number of its referent is not a serious problem, for various simple and esoteric reasons, as others have explained.

Yet, there is an elegant solution, least awkward of all, which you already see above: the bracketed words aren't just a choice of which is needed; they are all entirely optional—and are better left out. Due to the semantics of the causal so much that, there is no doubt as to what you bought dozens of (cookies) nor of which kind (the kind that you previosly tasted and liked.)

  • I liked that cookie so much that I bought dozens and distributed them to my friends.
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    If I say "I like this ice-cream", it doesn't necessarily mean in this instance, I could be with a friend visiting a gelateria and be pointing to a particular tried and tasted flavour. What I mean by this statement is "I like so and so". I've tried it in the past, and I liked it. "You like hobnobs = "You like this (type of) cookie/biscuit" expresses a permanent preference. You like this cookie so much, you've bought dozens of them. (BrEng) and You like this cookie so much you bought dozens of them (AmEng)
    – Mari-Lou A
    Aug 1, 2015 at 8:35
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    This answer explains a non-fact.
    – Greg Lee
    Aug 2, 2015 at 16:43
  • Agree with @Mari-LouA. Liking something doesn't take place at a particular time, it tends to be continuous. If you use the past tense "I liked this cookie", that would imply that something has changed and you no longer like it. And because of this, you can use the present tense to explain a past event.
    – Barmar
    Aug 3, 2015 at 18:12

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