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I am a native English speaker working in a team of writers for whom English is their second language. Although their level of English is very high, I do a lot of editing. We create training and in some manuals we include an 'Answer Key'. I often see people use 'Answer Keys' as a heading for this section. I instinctively change that to 'Answer Key' even though there are 'keys' to multiple assignments included in that section. I can't explain why but I think it should always be singular, although 'key' used in other contexts can undoubtedly be plural. Can anyone shed light on if I am following a rule correctly or if it is just a personal feeling?

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  • You say "in some manuals we include an 'Answer Key'". It seems significant to me that in that instance you choose to use the singular, though I suppose you could have said "we include Answer Keys". I am getting the impression that the same key, labelled in the same way, appears multiple times. Quite honestly I think you could argue either way as to whether you should use singular or plural. – WS2 Sep 6 '16 at 10:05
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It seems like the proper use is the singular Key, especially if it is a complete section.

This is similar to a Legend, which is defined as

a table on a map, chart, or the like, listing and explaining the symbols used.

where the whole table, which contains many pieces of information, is referred to in singular.

Keys are not what appear in this section, answers are. Rather the section is a Key.

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  • Yes! That's my feeling too. I just wanted to check if that was correct of if I made it up. If you google 'answer keys' you get plenty of results. I know it is a small thing but I like to get it right. Thank you. It is like a legend. Exactly. – Aimee Swartz-Glancy Sep 6 '16 at 10:10
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You say "in some manuals we include an 'Answer Key'". It seems significant to me that in that instance you choose to use the singular, though I suppose you could have said "we include Answer Keys".

I am getting the impression that the same key, labelled in the same way, appears multiple times.

Quite honestly I think you could argue either way as to whether you should use singular or plural.

It would be a bit like saying "Following last week's fire, the Flame Cooked restaurant chain (which has 500 branches) are providing a highly recognisable fire exit".

They are actually intending to do this 500 times, one at each site - so you could equally say "Flame Cooked are providing highly recognisable fire exits".

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It should not be a rule but logic. Instructive language, especially English used for instruction should have logical implication and structure.

If you have one key, then it should be answer key. However, when you have a set of keys, and you are referring to the set, rather than individual keys, you should refer to answer-keys.

You need to differentiate between references to the set, and references to individual members of a set.

For some situations, you need to refer to the whole set. For other situations you might need to refer to individual members.

  1. A generic non-finite footballer who could be any individual footballer:

    • A footballer must be prepared for harsh and brutal winter training.
  2. A generic non-finite footballer whom the franchise/team wishes to find and acquire for a specific position.

    • The footballer we are looking for must be capable of filling either left or right flank and capable of strong contribution to advance the ball to opposing goal line.
  3. A specific set of specifically professional but non-specific footballers.

    • NFL footballers usually have attractive spouses or girl friends.

Similarly,

  1. Provide the names of footballers who have a stable social life.

    • answer key: must be married for more than three years
  2. Please respond to the following queries. The answer keys are at the end of the question.

    1. Name an up-and-coming most valuable player.
    2. Name the most prominent NFL scandal within the past 24 months.
    3. Name a football team whose strong performance has been very erratic.

Answer keys (not in order of questions): mile-high, pittsburg, air.

In information schema design, normalisation convention and logic, require the set name to be plural, and its attributes singular

Footballers {footballer, dob, team}

Such that if the set of footballers is displayed on a page in a table,

  • the title of the page would "Footballers"
  • the 1st row of the table would be the column names
  • title of the 1st column would be "footballer"
  • 2nd column title would be "dob"
  • 3rd column title would be "team"
  • then records of each footballer would be listed in the subsequent rows of the table.

Similarly,

AnswerKeys {answerKey, questionIndex, questionSection}
Questions {index, section, question}

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