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Some idioms are not syntactically flexible, so I was wondering if "the apple of one’s eye" falls into that category. I mean would it be correct to pluralize the words "apple" and "eye" in this expression?

Which would you say is correct?

When I feel depressed, I hang out with my family;

a. they are apple of my eye.

b. they are the apples of my eye.

c. the apples of my eyes.

d. the apple of my eyes.

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    Depends on what you mean by "correct." Google ngram shows that "apple of my eye" is far more common, but "apples of my eye" has been used occasionally.
    – Juhasz
    Commented Sep 29, 2020 at 20:55
  • The Google ngrams would be a reasonable measure of idiomaticity. I'd guess that the small number of conflicting results for the inflexibility hypothesis are literal usages, mistakes or whimsical. Commented Sep 30, 2020 at 14:02
  • 1
    The apples of mine eyne
    – Unrelated
    Commented Sep 30, 2020 at 15:43
  • no it would not be correct. there can only be one apple of one's eye Commented Sep 30, 2020 at 17:05

5 Answers 5

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Although I can't provide evidence to support this, my feeling is that "apple of my eye" is not syntactically flexible. The pluralization of 'eye' (Sentences c and d) definitely sounds wrong. The pluralization of apple in Sentence b might be acceptable to some native speakers, but it sounds wrong to me. The only sentence I would consider natural is Sentence a - They are the apple of my eye. I think that here, apple is being used as a figurative term for something general and uncountable, such as a feeling of attachment or devotion. I suspect that is why it sounds strange in the plural.

Maybe an etymological analysis could shed some light on this.

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    I agree. Note that "etymological analysis" is incapable of giving any reliable information whatever about usage. Sometimes usage happens to agree with etymological information; sometimes it doesn't .
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Sep 29, 2020 at 20:31
  • It's an idiom, so etymology has little to do with current usage. Commented Sep 29, 2020 at 20:45
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    Point taken regarding etymology.
    – kandyman
    Commented Sep 29, 2020 at 20:46
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    Moon, in Fixed Expressions and Idioms ..., doesn't appear to mention inflectability with the apple of his eye (though the possessive pronoun obviously is not fixed). She does with 'pulled our leg/s', citing McCawley who ventured that the plural related specifically to a plurality of occasions! Moon adds that 'pulled our legs' is found more often than 'pulled our leg' where the tricked are plural. Commented Sep 30, 2020 at 14:29
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From Wikipedia,

"The phrase apple of my eye refers in English today to something or someone that one cherishes above all others. Originally, the phrase was simply an idiom referring to the pupil of the eye."

From Quora,

"Your eye (that is, you yourself) can have only one ‘apple’.

The apple of one’s eye is the delight of one’s life, the thing or person he or she loves best in all the world. You COULD say ‘the apple of my EYES’ (plural eyes) but you can’t have more than one MOST BELOVED thing/person.

One apple to a customer."

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First some etymology: The phrase was coined in the KJV Bible and used in subsequent translations:

Keep me as the apple of your eye; hide me in the shadow of your wings (Psalm 17:8, ESV)

keep my commandments and live; keep my teaching as the apple of your eye; (Prov 7:2, ESV)

For thus said the Lord of hosts, after his glory sent me to the nations who plundered you, for he who touches you touches the apple of his eye (Zechariah 2:8, ESV)

In the KJV and subsequent translations (such as the modern ESV), "apple of your/his eye" means the pupil, meaning a tender, vulnerable, and guarded part of the eye. So in Psalms and Zechariah there is a plea that the Psalmist or the nation of Israel might be reflexively protected by God.

One could argue that in the Zechariah verse, the you is plural. (I will have to ask my resident Hebrew scholar to verify.) Even many people are still a single apple. The pattern for a plural would be They are the apple of my/his/your eye. Thus, probably the best rendering would be choice (a):

they are the apple of my eye.

(I inserted the before apple to preserve the parallel with the original usage as well as the cadence of the KJV.)

In The Hiding Place, Corrie Ten Boom's father also uses the form They have touched the apple of my/his/your eye:

"Father! Those poor people!" I cried. . . .

"Those poor people," Father echoed. But to my surprise I saw that he was looking at the solders now forming into ranks to march away. "I pity the poor Germans, Corrie. They have touched the apple of God's eye.”

(The Hiding Place) (Although this is a recent publication from the 1970s, note that Ms. Ten Boom was likely translating from Dutch into contemporary English).

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We're dealing with idioms, therefore it's what sounds right.
I'd say something like this is entirely comprehensible to speakers of the language that know the original expression:

"My two twin boys, yep, they're the apples of my eye."

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You could say: "When I feel depressed, I hang out with my family; They are each an apple of my eye, and as such I am a person who breaks with normal idiomatic expressions by having many apples of my eye."

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    "Apples of my eye" isn't a grammar issue, it's a semantic issue.
    – nnnnnn
    Commented Sep 30, 2020 at 3:18
  • thanks @nnnnnn I'l update my post accordingly Commented Sep 30, 2020 at 13:25

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