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The sentence is as follows:

The number of potatoes they each peeled would be recorded.

I know that something plural like "have" should go after "they each", but why not numbers in this case? If "they each" is like a group of people, then why "number" should be singular? Correct my understanding of "they each" if it's incorrect since it's closely related to the question.

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  • I think "numbers" will be correct when you make it "each of them". – Stubborn Aug 22 '16 at 8:58
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    @Stubborn: I disagree. The colour of the car of each of the drivers was recorded: If you change colour to colours, every car has multiple colours! So in the OP's sentence, every person's bunch of potatoes has one number, not multiple, so numbers would look very strange. – oerkelens Aug 22 '16 at 9:09
  • I aggre with @oerkelens but also according to this site: ccc.commnet.edu/grammar/sv_agr.htm you should use has and not have after each – Dan Aug 22 '16 at 9:13
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    @oerkelens or the number of potatoes each has peeled... or the number of potatoes each of them has peeled – Dan Aug 22 '16 at 9:26
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    @MaxWilliams we do, partly at lest, if we use they each, we use have. See my answer. – Helmar Aug 22 '16 at 9:44
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It's not as much about 'they each' than about 'number of'. Moreover I will switch some of your tenses for clarity as otherwise the verb forms are just the same.

As the dictionary tells us:

The construction the number of + plural noun is used with a singular verb (as in the number of people affected remains small). Thus it is the noun number rather than the noun people which is taken to agree with the verb (and which is therefore functioning as the head noun). -ODO: number, usage

The tricky part with each on the other hand is that it can act in two ways.

Used to refer to every one of two or more people or things, regarded and identified separately:

[AS DETERMINER]: each battery is in a separate compartment

each one of us was asked what went on

[AS PRONOUN]: Derek had money from each of his five uncles

they each have their own personality - ODO each

They each have peeled a number of potatoes.

This rephrasing of your sentence and the dictionary example are the pronoun use of each.

As you can see they each is followed by plural verb (have), and singular noun (a number of potatoes / own personality). In the dictionary example each refers to the individual properties of the people that are referred by they.


Now you are trying to record these numbers individually.

The number of potatoes they each have peeled is still singular, thanks to the number of which is still the head of the damn thing. Therefore it is a valid sentence with a singular verb noun agreement.

The number of potatoes they each peeled was recorded. (I changed tense for clarity.)


You can also use each as determiner and use singular all over:

The number of potatoes each of us has peeled is recorded.

  • So "they each" is always referring to one person out of a whole group, but it's just kind of like a rule that the verb needs to regular because of "they" and same thing with "their". But still, we are talking about one person, while all the others in the group are in a same situation as this person. – HUN Aug 23 '16 at 3:36
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  1. The subject of the sentence is "The number", which is grammatically always singular. (Here, subject cannot be potatoes because "of potatoes" is a prepositional phrase and subjects usually cannot come in prepositional phrases. There are some exceptions to this rule though.) So, in order to match the subject-verb number you need a singular verb.
  2. As per the intended meaning of the sentence, "they each" has no relation with the main verb. "each" is only conveying a meaning that the individual number of potatoes peeled would be recorded. If "each" is omitted, the sentence would imply that the total number of potatoes they peeled would be recorded.
  3. To foster your understanding, consider this sentence: A number of people are stranded on the island. Here, "A number" is the subject, which is plural. Hence, the plural verb "are stranded." But, The number of people stranded on the island is far beyond the number of our evacuation boats.

http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/words/number-of-people-is-or-are

Hope this helps!

  • Welcome to ELU Nisha. It would be great if you could find some sources to substantiate your answer as ELU strives to provide objective answers. Have a look at the help center to find out about good answers. I also recommend the site tour. – Helmar Aug 22 '16 at 9:46
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I think it's because of "each" which forces the subject to be grammatically singular, even though "they" is technically a plural, but sometimes, as here, used as a third person singular which doesn't require a gender to be specified.

If you take out "each" then "the number of potatoes they peeled" would be ambiguous : total number or individually? Adding "each" removes the ambiguity.

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