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This is a problem that has been bugging me for a while, and I'm just trying to get an authoritative view on this question.

Say we're trying to convey the following: 'each of the students will be provided one pencil for the exam'.

Is this sentence acceptable: 'the students will be provided pencils for the exam'? If yes, doesn't this sentence create a potential linguistic (without using common sense) ambiguity, since it is possible that some students MAY each have more than one pencils?

To resolve this ambiguity, can we say: 'the students will be provided a pencil for the exam'? If yes, doesn't this risk creating the misunderstanding that ALL of the students will be sharing ONE pencil for the exam?

This may seem pedantic, but I suspect it can be an issue in, for example, legal documents.

I've been trying to search for an answer, but I don't really know how to technically describe my question. I defer to your wisdom, you who are so wise in the ways of the English language. Any authoritative reference will be much appreciated!

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  • The students will each be provided with a pencil for the exam. – KillingTime Mar 26 '20 at 9:26
  • A pedantic question to you: Are you addressing students with this text or parents/teachers/etc.? If you are addressing students then students (without the definite article) seems preferable to the students. Your title includes both variants. – Shoe Mar 26 '20 at 11:20
  • Hi Shoe. This example is entirely hypothetical, as my question is more about the grammatical and idiomatic aspects. – Jason Ye Mar 26 '20 at 12:17
  • Thanks for the clarification. Your question is related to the issue of the distributive plural which is addressed in this post: english.stackexchange.com/questions/301625/… – Shoe Mar 26 '20 at 12:24
  • Thanks so much for the link!! So good to know that the issue has a proper name and the content of the link is very instructive! – Jason Ye Mar 26 '20 at 12:35
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For the sake of absolute clarity it needs to be:

Each student will be provided with a pencil for the exam.

All the other options you mention, whilst grammatical, leave an element of ambiguity.

Though I believe any student would be forgiven for thinking that "Students will be provided with a pencil..." meant anything other than one pencil each!

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  • Thanks very much for your response, and I agree! – Jason Ye Mar 26 '20 at 10:23
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Which is correct — (i) 'the students will be provided a pencil for the exam' or (ii) 'students will be provided pencils for the exam'?

Your restricted choice of examples is an example of a false dichotomy[1] - a logical fallacy, which suggests that only one of two courses is possible when a third (or fourth, etc) course is available.

Neither option is particularly idiomatic.

I suspect it can be an issue in, for example, legal documents.

No. The law of most countries has experience of cases of ambiguity: it either dismisses the case for lack of clarity or, more often, takes "the natural meaning" by deciding what the overall intention is. Here it could be assumed that "a pencil" meant "one pencil per student" and "pencils" would indicate an infinite supply of pencils available to all students.

I would say "Students will be given one pencil each for the exam. Please bring your own sharpener." Or "There will be a supply of pencils for the exam.

[1] https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/false_dichotomy

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  • Thanks very much for your response! Although on your point that the expressions are unnatural for native speakers, I've come across both in both writings as well as speech. So I've got the impression that both are acceptable and just wanted to see what everyone else thinks. – Jason Ye Mar 26 '20 at 10:26
  • Also your point that 'students will be provided pencils for the exam' suggests an infinite supply of pencils is very interesting! – Jason Ye Mar 26 '20 at 10:27

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