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If you have a list of descriptors (probably names or colours, but could be other things) which refer to items of the same type, followed by a noun which applies to all of the items in the list, should that noun be plural or singular?

For example:

"If you choose the red, yellow or blue door/doors, then you win a prize."

"If you operate the 'On' or 'Activate' switch/switches, the machine will operate normally."

If neither is wrong, but it depends on the context, what does the plural/singular imply about the items in the list? For example if there is only 1 each of the red, yellow and blue doors (vs if there are 2+ of each colour) does that affect which noun should be used?

My inclination was that the noun should be pluralised as it refers to multiple items (there are multiple doors, multiple switches) however I can see the argument that if there is only one blue door, one yellow door, etc. then 'door' should remain singular.

Thanks!

  • Look at the expanded forms: "If you choose the red door, the yellow door, or the blue door, then you win a prize." / "If you choose the red door, the yellow doors, or the blue door, then you win a prize." (you can't delete this one) etc. – Edwin Ashworth Oct 3 '16 at 21:58
  • Thanks. Good point about expanding. I considered this but wasn't sure how to do so. Your example makes it obvious. So if everything on the list is singular, you would use the singular. If everything is plural, you use the plural. If there is a mixture then you would presumably either use the plural, or whatever applies to the item listed last. If we are the reader, we can infer the quantities of the items in the list from the type of noun used. door = 1 of each type. doors = 2+ of at least one type. And if we intend the choice to be exclusive? Use 'a (X or Y) door' instead of 'the'? – David Williams Oct 5 '16 at 9:25
  • I think you're forced to rewrite more fully unless (1) there is one door of each colour or (2) you are choosing a colour-coded set of doors. Thus "If you choose the red door, either of the yellow doors, or one of the blue doors, then you win a prize." – Edwin Ashworth Oct 5 '16 at 17:33
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If you are referring to multiple blue doors, multiple yellow doors, etc, then you say "doors" but if you say, if you choose the red, yellow, or blue door, then you win a prize. (in this case the word OR clarifies that the descriptors are for a singular noun.)

There can be multiple choices, but the noun describes the number of things of that choice. If there is only one of each, then the noun is singular.

You can also say, operate either the On switch, or the Activate Switch, and the machine will run smoothly.(This sentence is specifying a choice of one or the other.)

Or you can say, Flip the On AND the Activate switches to start the machine. (this sentence is referring to turning on both switches at the same time, so the noun is plural. I hope this helps.)

  • Also note that, in the case of the On/Activate switch example this could come from a manual covering multiple models of the same machine. In this case some models might have an 'On' switch while others have an 'Actvate' switch but both types of switch perform the same function. In this case the people reading the manual have no choice to make, they just use the one switch they have. – BoldBen Oct 4 '16 at 12:21

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