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I'm formulating a sentence and as a Swede (non-native English speaker), I couldn't quite figure this one out. I don't know the appropriate linguistic terms for these words, sorry about that. Feel free to edit and add correct terms.

This is the sentence:

Generally speaking, this concerns tasks whose outputs are more tasks.

My questions is: Should I instead write the following?

Generally speaking, this concerns tasks whose output is more tasks.

Of course, I could work around the problem with something like tasks that are outputting more tasks, but it felt like an interesting question to ask!

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3  
At the risk of lowering the tone here, I'll just say I see nothing wrong with referring to men whose left testicle hangs lower than the right. I didn't find any instances in Google Books for the same construction with left testicles hang, and to be honest I think using the plural there would be slightly "awkward" (because of the right). But for OP's exact context I think both singular and plural are perfectly valid. –  FumbleFingers Jun 16 at 16:54
    
@ Simeon: I realise your third ("work around the problem") example isn't really part of the question, but you might consider editing to change plural outputs to singular output, since it seems to be nothing but an irrelevantly distracting error. –  FumbleFingers Jun 16 at 20:12
    
@FumbleFingers: my point exactly - this isn't so much a matter of plurality as it is the choice of verb. –  CocoPop Jun 16 at 21:27
    
@CocoPop: I don't see what you mean. OP admits (merely as an aside) that by using output as a verb rather than a noun he can get round the problematic usage being queried. Although obviously that fell flat, since he confused himself, and ended up using the unquestionably incorrect singular verb form outputs with plural subject tasks. –  FumbleFingers Jun 16 at 21:39
    
The third (workaround) is grammatically wrong. "tasks" do not "outputs" something. Either of the first two examples are fine, although I personally like the first more than the second. –  Phil Perry Jun 16 at 21:48

6 Answers 6

up vote 3 down vote accepted

Your base sentence is itself ambiguous.

  1. It may mean that each of the tasks with which you are concerned outputs a single new task.

  2. It may mean that each of the tasks with which you are concerned outputs multiple new tasks.

  3. It may mean that the tasks with which you are concerned participate in an aggregation or collaboration which outputs multiple new tasks.

  4. It may mean that the tasks with which you are concerned participate in multiple aggregations which each output one or more tasks.

Context will ordinarily sort out which of these is intended, so in practice most people will find all three sentences you put forward acceptable (provided you replace the singular verb outputs in the third one with output).

But if you are concerned to avoid the consequences of the Adamantine Law you will compose a different sentence for each. Given your preference for expressions with whose rather than which, I suggest:

  1. Generally speaking, this concerns tasks each of whose output is another task.

  2. Generally speaking, this concerns tasks each of whose outputs are more tasks.

  3. Generally speaking, this concerns a set of tasks whose aggregate output is more tasks.

  4. Generally speaking, this concerns tasks participating in aggregations each of whose output is one or more tasks.

Myself, I prefer to replace the expression each of whose with whose each. However, a discussion of whose each on our Elder Sister Site suggests that this expression is unfamiliar to many contemporary readers; so it should probably be avoided under the Insularity Principle.


The Adamantine Law: “Any expression that can be misunderstood will be.”

The Insularity Principle: “Any expression, however well established, will be rejected as ‘ungrammatical’ by those unfamiliar with it.”

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Given the text being asked about starts with the caveat generally speaking, I find it hard to imagine it would make any difference in practice which of your four possible alternatives might apply. So the "potential ambiguity" there seems effectively irrelevant to me. There's no possibility of ambiguity in the left testicle example I commented against the question (or the nose one in my answer), where it seems to me it would be mere pedantry to assert that only plural (or indeed, only singular) would be "correct". –  FumbleFingers Jun 16 at 20:42
    
@FumbleFingers I agree; as I said, usually (99%+ of the time?) it will make no difference at all. But every once in a while it will make a difference, so you have to be prepared for those occasions. –  StoneyB Jun 16 at 20:50
    
Well, I'm obviously not going to set myself in opposition to The Adamantine Law (or Murphy's, or Sod's!). But it seems crystal clear to me OP is actually asking about the grammatical position vis-a-vis singular/plural as per his first two examples (the third one being just an irrelevant aside that unfortunately contains an indisputable error). Presumably you side with me on the "grammaticality" issue, but (somewhat surprisingly, to me) not everyone does. So it's certainly an issue worth addressing. –  FumbleFingers Jun 16 at 21:06
    
@FumbleFingers Yes; that gaffe aside, they're all grammatical. Whether one is better than the others will depend on the facts which are to be represented. The facts are unambiguous in the testicular sentence (even in cases of polyorchidism), but in OP's sentences, taken in isolation, they are not. –  StoneyB Jun 16 at 21:15
    
Polyorchidism?!!! I shall refrain from speculating how come you just happen to have such a word at your fingertips (I had to look it up, even though in context I could make a reasonably confident guess! :) Whatever - at least we're singing from the same hymn-sheet on what I perceive to be the main thrust of the question. I am content. –  FumbleFingers Jun 16 at 21:34

I actually would disagree with CocoPop based on what sounds natural to my native English ear. I would have said

Generally speaking, this concerns tasks whose outputs consist mainly of [other] tasks.

I think the reason is that "whose", in agreement with the first "tasks," is plural. We are talking about lots of outputs from lots of tasks. I think to keep "output" singular, we would need to say

Generally speaking, this concerns tasks, each of whose output consists mainly of tasks.

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This issue came up on ELU over three years ago with “On their back” or “on their backs”?, where I think the majority mistakenly backed the "literal" position (they think since their refers to multiple children, the only valid form must refer to plural backs).

As pointed out in my own answer to that question, although the plural form (as represented by, for example, those whose noses are) is more common in such contexts, the singular (those whose nose is) also occurs - often enough that it would be perverse to say the usage is "unacceptable".

As I also pointed out, there is evidence that the singular is becoming more common - and I believe it's a situation where grammarians chose one "logical" approach, but native speakers in general increasingly ignore that if they happen to see things from the opposite perspective.


TL;DR: Both are valid, and are used - but some people still insist only the plural is "correct".

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This one won't quite work:

Generally speaking, this concerns tasks which outputs more tasks.

Here, "outputs" is a verb, not a noun (as in the other sentences). So when you strip away most of this sentence, leaving only the relationship between the word "tasks" and the verb that goes with "tasks", what you're left with is this:

Tasks outputs.

"Tasks" is plural, but "outputs" is a singular verb. In this case, "outputs" should be "output", just so that it agrees with the subject.


The other two treat "outputs" as a noun:

Generally speaking, this concerns tasks whose outputs are more tasks.

Generally speaking, this concerns tasks whose output is more tasks.

Should you use a singular noun and verb, or should you use a plural noun or verb? This really depends on the noun in question; there doesn't seem to be a very general rule for it.

As for "output" though, you could really go either way in this case. It depends on whether you're thinking of all the little "outputs" as a single, collective whole, or whether you're thinking of them as individual units. If you're thinking of them as all being grouped together as a single whole, "output is" is more appropriate. But if you're wanting to emphasize the individuality of the outputs - that they're all a bunch of different, individual things - "outputs are" is more appropriate. It's really up to you in this case.

I'll also briefly mention that "outputs are" is something that you're more likely to hear around technical people than around the general crowd. Non-technical people would generally just go with "output is".

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In addition to StoneyB's answer, I would like to offer a set of alternatives for the four interpretations, where output is used as a verb.

  1. Generally speaking, this concerns tasks. Each outputs a new task.
  2. Generally speaking, this concerns tasks. Each outputs more tasks.
  3. Generally speaking, this concerns tasks that together output more tasks.
  4. Generally speaking, this concerns tasks working together, and each of them outputs one or more tasks.
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Indeed an interesting question and three very good attempts! As a native, and with little context, I can only offer what I probably would have written:

Generally speaking, this concerns tasks whose output consists mainly of tasks.

Naturally, you can replace mainly with mostly, if you feel it's more accurate.

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1  
I don't see how this addresses OP's question. The switch to consists and mainly/mostly is irrelevant - and it's by no means clear whether you have any particular opinion on OP's "plural" alternative, which based on your rephrasing would be "this concerns tasks whose outputs consist mainly of tasks". –  FumbleFingers Jun 16 at 16:41
    
I don't agree at all since I wouldn't use the plural "outputs" in this case. He never made clear which part of his original sentence he questioned, and I feel I offered him a very correct and apropos model in English, and if nothing more, the construction "consists mainly of," which was the missing element in my estimation, regardless of the plurality issue, to complete his original thought. Your assuming his question was about plurality, but how do you know? Thanks for the down vote. –  CocoPop Jun 16 at 16:51
    
And if your argument is that he proposes "is" vs "are" - that matter became moot when I replaced "to be" with "to consist of" (at least in my answer - but I see others followed suite!) –  CocoPop Jun 16 at 16:54
    
I think OP could hardly have made it clearer! He presents two possible phrasings, where the only difference is the first has plural outputs are, and the second has singular output is. –  FumbleFingers Jun 16 at 16:59
    
[read my last comment] –  CocoPop Jun 16 at 17:39

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