13
  1. We should wash our face with clean water.
  2. We should wash our faces with clean water.

Which is more natural, 'face' or 'faces'?

Does the plural subject 'we' require a plural noun in the object?

  • If you have a picture of your family and yourself is there. Do you say that "our pictures"? It's one face that we share together. Plural subject doesnt always followed by a plural noun as an object – user178049 Sep 2 '16 at 12:23
  • 4
    @user178049 - Yes, but we do share one picture. We don't share one face. – stangdon Sep 2 '16 at 12:54
  • @stangdon sure, sharing face doesnt make sense here. But the concept is same right? – user178049 Sep 2 '16 at 13:16
  • 5
    @user178049: no, the concept is the exact opposite. In my opinion "faces" is almost always the right choice here. – TonyK Sep 2 '16 at 14:16
  • In some languages you'd definitely use the singular. Having been explicitly told this when I learned French (forty years ago), I'd say that most English-speakers use and expect the plural, with perhaps an exception for parts of a uniform: We wear our badge on our right shoulder(s). – Anton Sherwood Sep 2 '16 at 20:37
13

If each individual [item] implied by a plural subject has only one of something (each of us has one face, in OP's example), we tend to extend the plurality of the subject (we) to the object (faces). Thus:

1: We can hold our heads up - 720 hits in Google Books
2: We can hold our head up - 121 hits

But if you look at some of the results there, I'm sure you'll find that the second (singular) set will have more contexts where we're all taking pride exactly in the same thing (as opposed to each of us being proud of our specific version of whatever it is).

So in OP's specific example, most people in most contexts would use plural faces. But if preceding text had focused on "the face" in a more "generic, archetypal" way (for example, A stranger's face is usually the first thing we look at when we meet them), it wouldn't be unreasonable for the writer to continue with the singular when recommending that everyone should wash their face properly.


There's one additional point to consider in contexts like OP's. Sometimes (especially when addressing children), we use we when we really mean you (singular or plural, we do it in both contexts). Thus:

(Teacher to lazy pupil)
3: We didn't do our homework, did we?

(Dentist examining new client's mouth)
4: We haven't been using our dental floss, have we?

That interpretation (we means you, and doesn't include the speaker) isn't always possible. But it certainly could apply in OP's context, so bearing in mind this would represent a very condescending style of address, that might be one more reason to use the plural in that exact context.

  • 1
    I think this is worth noting: In your examples of "we" meaning "you", both "homework" and "floss" are mass nouns. That may be trickier when it's a noun like "face" that needs to be clearly singular or plural. – recognizer Sep 2 '16 at 16:43
  • 1
    @recognizer: I don't think the plurality of the object nouns in my examples has any relevance to the point being made. I could just as well have illustrated using We're just being lazy or similar. – FumbleFingers Sep 2 '16 at 16:52
  • In many decades of speaking this language, the extension of plurality has never occurred to me until I read the above. Of course, I said things like "wash our face," but never paid it any mind. But the OP's first example is an error in number, aye? – P. E. Dant Sep 2 '16 at 18:14
  • @P. E. Dant: Well,... No! Is my answer text really that unclear? The whole point of it was to convey that both versions are "valid". And it's possible to imagine contexts where singular might actually be the preferred form for OP's exact text. As per the example I tried to give above, where the preceding talk may have focused on the face as some kind of "disembodied archetypal face" - making it seem perfectly natural to refer to it in the singular even if there must be at least two faces (that of the speaker and his potentially singular audience). – FumbleFingers Sep 2 '16 at 18:21
  • @P.E.Dant, I wouldn't say it was an error, just that it is applying 'we' to a set of individuals. When we're alone, we each wash only our own face. That seems (slightly) less wrong... – Sean Houlihane Sep 2 '16 at 18:22
9

In this case, I'd say you need the plural "faces". As, presumably, we each have our own face, you are talking about many faces here.

But it isn't true that a plural subject requires a plural object. Many people could be acting on one thing. For example, "We should keep our neighborhood clean." There could be many people all living in one neighborhood. Plural subject, singular object. One person could be acting on many things. "I should wash my hands with clean water." One person but he has two hands. Singular subject, plural object.

  • And what about the song? This is the way we wash our face... – V.V. Sep 2 '16 at 13:58
  • 1
    Saying our faces is like we were multiface – user178049 Sep 2 '16 at 14:12
  • @V.V.: The only song that comes to mind for me is This is the way we pick our nose, pick our nose, pick our nose:/ This is the way we pick our nose, so early in the morning. That's riffing off Here we go round the mulberry bush, so it has to be singular to maintain scansion. – FumbleFingers Sep 2 '16 at 18:50
0

From the position of descriptive grammar, the usage that is most common in your dialect is more 'natural'.

From a technical perspective, the confusion arises due to a lost reference for possession.

To clarify, think of a family who owns one car-

We should all wash our car.

A family that owns several cars-

We should all (every one of us) wash our cars.

A family where each member owns a car-

We should all (each one of us) wash our (own) car.

A family where each member owns several cars-

We should all wash our cars.

Confusion arises because the last form is a grammatically correct expression. At the same time, unlike a car, it is implicitly understood that each one of us has only one face.

Read the following three sentences to see if you can understand how the singular 'face' makes sense when possession is understood clearly.

We should all wash a face with clean water.

We should all wash our own face with clean water.

We should all wash our face with clean water.

Notice how 'own' specifies what is implicitly understood, each one of us owns just one face.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.