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We can say that "John has an excellent work ethic".

So can we say that "John and Mary have excellent work ethics"?

Or should it still be "John and Mary have an excellent work ethic"?

  • Does John have a particularly noticeable work ethic? Or does he simply have excellent work ethics, overall? I'd say "John has excellent work ethics. John and Mary have excellent work ethics." – NVZ Apr 26 '16 at 4:57
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    Related SE question: ethic vs ethics – NVZ Apr 26 '16 at 5:06
  • for what it is worth, "John and Mary have an excellent work ethic" seems to make sense to me. Making ethics plural just doesn't feel right. – Dan Shaffer May 26 '16 at 13:06
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"John and Mary have excellent work ethics" could be read as "They each have multiple work ethics" or "They each have a single work ethic". It's actually the latter case that's true: each person has a single "work ethic".

Therefore, saying

"John and Mary have an excellent work ethic"

avoids the ambiguity, and thus is less likely to cause confusion. This should perhaps more formally be written as

"John and Mary each have an excellent work ethic"

to make it clear that you're not talking about a single thing that is shared between them, although most people would comprehend that without confusion without the addition of "each".

You could also say

"John and Mary both have an excellent work ethic"

and I personally think that this is the best way to say it.

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These Google Ngrams show that both 'have a good work ethic' and 'have good work ethics' are used, but that the former is more common.

Since the notion is probably largely unitary, I'd follow the mainstream usage of using the pseudo-mass usage (have a good work ethic); the plural count-noun usage is available if the ethics are significantly different.

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