Is it grammatically correct to use the word life in the singular when referring to more than one person?

I found the following sentences in the Corpus of Contemporary American English.

a. we can save the life of many of these patients.

b. Clearly, CPR has been credited for saving the life of many.

  • 2
    Very closely related (the general issue involved): Do you pluralize the singular possessions of individual members of a plural group?. Here, perhaps encouraged by the non-count usage ('Saving life must be our primary concern'), the singular form is available, but as @LPH says, the plural usage is much more idiomatic. The distributive singular (qv) is often used ('Most people own a cell phone') especially with [semi?-] abstracts ... Commented Oct 23, 2020 at 10:31
  • ('Here's to a long life, gentlemen!' ... semi-count? // 'Their mind was made up.'), but also to show 'one per person' ('Now class, take your protractor in one hand and your pencil in the other.') Commented Oct 23, 2020 at 10:37

1 Answer 1


This is perfectly correct (ngram).


  • (ref., 2008) It reflects the priority of work in the life of many British contemporaries and, albeit indirectly, it invokes death through the implicit idea of stress resulting from a 'work-life' imbalance.

  • (ref., 1992) The life of many Christians today is largely a pretense.

  • (ref., 1975) In the monastic life, it is extremely important that we take account of this concept because, in fact, we have to face with sorrow the bitter truth that the life of many monks and many dedicated women, and many other dedicated people, […]

  • (ref., 2010) It was a model that ignored the realities of the life of many families, and was a model inaccessible to millions of poor families (Heiner, 2002).

However, "the lives of many" is not wrong and it is much more common (ref.).

  • How about if I change "the life of many" to "many people's life" as in "The firefighters saved many people's life”?
    – GrammarBoy
    Commented Oct 23, 2020 at 19:15
  • @GrammarBoy It doesn't sound familiar to me; the unusualness of this agreement is verified in this ngram: books.google.com/ngrams/…; rather than that people had rather say "many people's lives"; however, you can still use the other way. As a matter of fact since a recent past more and more people have been doing so, as you can see in the ngram.
    – LPH
    Commented Oct 23, 2020 at 19:16
  • Sorry, LPH, I didn't realize you had answered my second question. I wanted to edit my comment but this system wouldn't allow me to do so. so I decided to delete my question and retype it.
    – GrammarBoy
    Commented Oct 23, 2020 at 19:23
  • @GrammarBoy No problem !
    – LPH
    Commented Oct 23, 2020 at 19:28
  • 1
    There's a difference between these examples where life refers to a general, shared experience, and individual lives being saved. "Life" is often used to refer to a single, general style of living common among multiple people, in the singular ("The life of many Christians today is largely a pretense" cf "Life in America is largely a pretence"), but if you're talking about individual separate things, "lives" is better.
    – Stuart F
    Commented Jul 9, 2022 at 10:28

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