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Assume that you own a collection of chairs. Each chair is made by a different maker and bears the mark of its maker. Moreover, each chair has only one maker and thus only one mark.

Now consider the following sentence:

  • All the chairs had their makers' marks.

My question is: does the above sentence accurately describe the situation? Specifically, I am unsure whether the use of the plural in "marks" is correct. Does it entail that the chairs had more than one mark, or not?

I am aware that there might be clearer ways to describe the situation above (namely: "each chair had the mark of its maker," or similar forms). Still, I am concerned with the above sentence specifically.

Many thanks in advance for the help.

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    It doesn't entail that the m chairs had n (>m) marks, but it suggests it, as Gricean maxims demand the clearer rewrite. Non-violation of Gricean maxims is usually advisable, though variably observed. Nov 29, 2021 at 12:09

2 Answers 2

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That sentence would only be correct if all of the chairs shared a single maker. Because the multiple chairs have multiple makers, the following would be correct:

All the chairs had their makers' marks.

As you note, this sentence is ambiguous, because we don't know whether each chair has one or more makers (or one or more marks).

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    Thanks! "Maker's" was actually a typo. I have corrected it now.
    – Maverick
    Nov 28, 2021 at 16:03
  • I agree that the sentence is ambiguous. My worry is mainly whether the plural excludes the correct meaning or not?
    – Maverick
    Nov 28, 2021 at 16:29
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    @Maverick No, it doesn't. "They" is a plural pronoun, so it must refer to multiple chairs. Even if each chair has only one maker and one mark, the multiple chairs have multiple makers and multiple marks. (Of course, colloquial usage differs. Also, there is an exception if you use adverbial "each", but that's not present in this sentence.) Nov 28, 2021 at 16:37
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I think the best option is probably "Each chair had its maker's mark". The problem with the original is that it is ambiguous, as it stands one or more chairs might have more than one mark.

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  • Thanks! I know the sentence is ambiguous. My question is about whether it moreover excludes the correct meaning. Sorry if this was not clear from my post.
    – Maverick
    Nov 29, 2021 at 8:23
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    The structure does not exclude the correct meaning, otherwise it would be unambiguous but incorrect. But, as it is horribly ambiguous and rather confusing in other ways as well, it would be better to use one of the other suggested forms instead.
    – BoldBen
    Nov 30, 2021 at 9:14

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