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It's "To the best of my ability"

But which is (more) correct:

  • to the best of their ability
  • to the best of their abilities

I'm finding both options on linguee.com about equally often, so I guess whatever I choose will not be ridiculously wrong.

But I am still curious if only one is correct according to some rule in the English language.

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  • Is "their" intended as non-gendered singlar or to refer to a group? Nov 29, 2021 at 18:34
  • Welcome! Can you edit to tell a bit about what you've already found out, or about what concerns you about one of the options? Nov 29, 2021 at 18:41
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    Google 5-grams indicate that both are used, and strongly suggest that the non-count usage in a fixed phrase ('[to] the best of their ability') is preferred. Checking individual results from Ngrams shows these are largely the usages under review. Nov 29, 2021 at 18:53
  • @killingTime "their" refers to a group of people.
    – mgr326639
    Nov 29, 2021 at 18:56
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    Does this answer your question? "They're using a cell phone" vs. "They're using cell phones" 'The Distributive Singular ... (2) To Convey Universal, Abstract, and Figurative Ideas: Follett remarks that the 'thing possessed' also “remains in the singular when what is plurally possessed is universal, abstract or figurative” Jo & Tom toasted their health (universal). Jo and Tom were led by their curiosity to open the door (abstract).' But with OP's example, the plural is also available. Nov 29, 2021 at 19:15

1 Answer 1

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Let's be clear, first of all, that plural groups can have singular attributes ("The peasants' mood was rebellious"). And the answer in the page Edwin linked talks about the "distributive plural" ("It's time for all the actors to get their costume on"). By this principle, "to the best of their ability" is understood to mean "each person, to the best of his or her individual ability."

But it seems to me, there's one more opportunity for confusion here, because the word is "ability." We often speak of distinct individual abilities, like talents ("Everyone should leverage their skills and abilities"). This usage might lead us to consider choosing the plural here.

But I would argue that the phrase "to the best of [one's] ability" is distinct from this usage. It paraphrases to "the best that one is able"; the word ability in this phrase does not refer to a distinct skill but to one's overall capacity. It's a superlative; "Dance to the best of your ability" means "dance your 'bestest.'" It speaks of a cap on maximum effort and attainment. It would be silly to say to one person "do your best" and, to a group, "do your bests." So no, I would argue that each person has only one "best of [his or her] ability," and that meaning of "ability" is the same for each person (even if the capacity is not), so we should use the singular "ability" and let the distributive plural take care of the rest.

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