Happy New Year all!

I was travelling in a public transport and saw the passenger notice. One of the statements on the notice has this information:

Passengers are advised to wear a surgical mask when having symptoms of fever.

I am wondering why a singular object, i.e. a surgical mask is used. It sounds like to me that all passengers are advised to share the same surgical mask when aboard.

Could you explain it please?

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    It's normal. If you said plural "surgical masks", that might imply that each passenger was to wear more than one surgical mask. "Passengers" here has a distributive meaning, so we understand it as "all passengers are advised ..." – BillJ Jan 2 '17 at 13:07
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    @BillJ or maybe we understand it as "Each passenger ..." – Araucaria - Not here any more. Jan 2 '17 at 13:11
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    It doesn't matter who it was written by, or for whom. We were asked to explain the notice as it was actually written, not how it might be improved. – BillJ Jan 2 '17 at 15:33
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    @JiK Why? The OP asked about the grammar of (as they put it) "a plural noun with a singular object". – BillJ Jan 2 '17 at 15:53
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    @FumbleFingers How can you recommend closing this question as a duplicate, when the "older" question has ZERO upvotes? I mean, not even one upvote, anywhere as of today (Jan 2 2017) – Mari-Lou A Jan 2 '17 at 17:02

A singular object - mask - is used since each passenger is expected to wear a single mask.

If, on the other hand, each passenger was expected to wear multiple items, a plural form would have been used.

For example :

Passengers are advised to wear surgical gloves when having symptoms of fever.

Here each passenger is expected to wear two gloves, so a plural form is used. Of course we can replace "surgical gloves" with "a pair of surgical gloves", which would bring us back to the singular form.

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  • So in the sentence "They wore masks" we can be sure that at least one person wore two or more masks? – Jeppe Stig Nielsen Jan 2 '17 at 15:56
  • @JeppeStigNielsen No, that's a good counterexample. I think this answer may not actually be entirely correct. I'm not sure of the official grammar rules about this, but to me, both sound correct. Saying "They wore masks" does NOT guarantee or even imply that at least one passenger wears 2 or more masks. Actually, saying "They wore a mask" would imply that the group of people wore a single mask (and likely all at once). – Alex K Jan 2 '17 at 17:29
  • @JeppeStigNielsen: the "if" statement goes the other way: if they were each expected to wear multiple masks, a plural would be used. As far as I can tell, this answer doesn't assert the converse. – sumelic Jan 2 '17 at 22:06

(Note: I have edited this answer to remove extraneous opinions)

"When having symptoms of fever" is not quite idiomatic, making me think this sign appears in a non-English-speaking country. It's grammatical, but I feel like there are more idiomatic expressions.

Aside from that, though, no one would read this sign and expect to have to share a mask with someone else. The natural implication is one mask, each. Example:

All applicants should remember to sign their form before they turn it in.

This helps emphasize there is a single form, which each applicant must sign.

That being said, it might be more idiomatic if the sign in your example said:

Passengers are advised to wear surgical masks if they have signs of fever.

Again, no one would think each passenger was supposed to wear multiple masks. It just matches the plural "passengers" with plural "masks".

Most of these kind of regulations are written in the imperative form: "do this", "don't do that", etc. and many seem to use the plural. For example NCTD Rules of Riding:

Attire: Shirts and shoes required at all times.

Luggage, Surfboards and Other Belongings: Passengers’ belongings, including surfboards, must not exceed 6 feet in length, and must not block seats, aisles, doorways or exits. Surfboards and open strollers are permitted only on the lower-level of cars.

It's unlikely anyone would be carrying more than one surfboard or stroller, but using the plural allows for any combination, while using the singular creates an expectation of one, each.

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    I downvoted because my intuitions about British vs. American usage don't agree with what you say (it seems to me both forms are used in both regions, without any real pattern), and you don't provide any evidence to convince me that this is a real trans-Atlantic difference. – sumelic Jan 2 '17 at 16:58
  • @sumelic I know this is an old answer but I edited to address your concern and to reflect my current opinion. – Andrew May 4 '18 at 16:52

'Passengers' is acting as a singular noun describing a category of person.

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  • Please explain what you mean by saying "passengers is acting as a singular noun". This is confusing, since it triggers plural agreement on the verb "are". – sumelic Jan 2 '17 at 18:02
  • You are advised to wear... Passengers are advised to wear... – Laurence Payne Jan 2 '17 at 20:09

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