While browsing this SE site, I stopped to look at the "What kind of questions can I ask here?" section of the FAQ, where the following is written:

Questions on the following topics are welcomed here:

  • Etymology (history of words’ development)

I'm not claiming the above is wrong, but I am asking if it's right! My question is about the combination of "words'" and "development". Since "word" is plural but their "development" is singular, does this imply that these words need to have a collective development?

Alternatively, would it be more like the [possibly] intended meaning to have "development" in its plural form, leaving the words free to develop individually or in any combination?


I don't think there's anything grammatically wrong with the phrasing, but it does seem rather clumsy to me. I'd probably have written (history and development of words).

Using "development" in the singular is simply because the alternative is even more clumsy, but syntactically both are acceptable (see this question on difference between "on their back/backs").

  • Thanks for the answer! Regarding the link, couldn't hits for the the singular (such as "on their back") be using "their" as a singular gender-neutral pronoun? e.g. "some baby was lying on their back". – Samthere Aug 17 '11 at 19:02
  • @Samthere: Yes, in that context, "their" is being used as a gender-neutral singular alternative. But the question and answers are focussed on whether "back" should be pluralised or not. In fact, people usually do, but it's really a matter of style. – FumbleFingers Aug 17 '11 at 21:08

"Words' development" is correct. "Word" is singular, not plural, which may be the source of the confusion.

As used here, "Development" is a single, general condition common to all "words" (i.e., the development of all words, collectively) and does not need to be pluralized. If we were talking about the unique development of individual words and not all words collectively, then, yes, "development" would be pluralized.

Let me give you a similar example: "The cows' trouble is poor feed." We do not pluralize "troubles" because the trouble is common to all the cows.

  • ""Word" is singular, not plural, which may be the source of the confusion." Huh? Did you mean that the other way round? – Samthere Aug 18 '11 at 11:09

In my interpretation, "The history of the development of words" would be correct for words plural as a single idea, meaning the development of verbal and written speech and expression. The possessive (words') is meant to mean a collection of "development of a word", meaning that each single word has its own history in how it came to mean what it came to mean, and etymology is the generic study of how all words each have their own history and development as individual words.

Does that make sense?

  • Hmm... I see what you're trying to say, but is sounds like "the history of DEVELOPMENT OF WORDS", as in "a historical analysis of the process of developing words." – Mike Christian Aug 17 '11 at 17:57
  • I see what you mean, but I'm having a hard time comparing "development of words" with "words' development". Not because they don't make sense, but because I'm inferring different things from each. For example "the development of words" feels a lot more generally like a [concept] of [many things], whereas the other way round it's [many things]' [concept]. I'm having some difficulty explaining it as it's quite subtle, but the second way makes it seem a lot more like the [concept] is a definite thing that each [thing] has as a property. wipes sweat from linguistic brain and returns to games :P – Samthere Aug 17 '11 at 19:09

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