2

Situation1:

... and if the cat(s) run into the building, it's going to be a lot more difficult to find.

..

... and if the cat(s) run into the building, they're going to be a lot more difficult to find.


Situation2:

...the chemical reaction is dependent upon the interaction between the enzyme(s) and its complementary substrate(s).

..

...the chemical reaction is dependent upon the interaction between the enzyme(s) and their complementary substrate(s).

I run into these kinds of situations all the time in my writing, and I never know which to go with. Should I tense the rest of the sentence (after the noun) with what's most probable? i.e., if there is a much higher chance of multiple cats running into the building, should I go with the plural pronoun? Or, should I always assume and use the singular?

Is there any kind rule/guideline for this? Thanks in advance.

1

The actual best answer is to try to avoid the optional plural altogether, if possible. I don't have full context for your sentence, but here are some examples:

If cats run into buildings, they are more difficult to find.

Even though this uses the plural, it in no way excludes the fact that it is still true even if only one cat does it. Your example used "the cat(s)" but the definite article actually makes this hard to understand. It means you are talking about specific cats, and if you are talking about specific cats, you ought to know how many there are.

Again, in your second example, simply making it plural would not mean there might be only one enzyme. Especially if it's already clear in context that there may be one or more.

If you truly must use the optional plural, you must also put in awkward parentheses everywhere they could possibly apply:

. . . if the cat(s) run(s) into the building, it's (they're) going to be a lot more difficult to find.

It would be better to rephrase that, too:

. . . if one or more cats run into the building, they are going to be more difficult to find.
. . . the chemical reaction is dependent upon the interaction between one or more enzymes and their complementary substrates.

By using a compound with the conjunction "or" you can simply base agreement on the second noun in the list, which is "more cats" or "more enzymes" and is plural. It's also much easier to read and understand.

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Situation 1:

If the cat runs into the building, it's going to be a lot more difficult to find.

This states that if a particular cat runs into the building, THIS CAT is going to be more difficult to find.

If the cats run into the building, they're going to be a lot more difficult to find.

Here you are talking about cats in the plural. These cats are going to be more difficult to find.

If the cats run into the building, it's going to be more difficult to find (them).

In this construction, the use of it's means that the task of finding them is going to be much more difficult. You have to add the direct object them to make this clear.

All three options are correct, depending on whether you are talking about a single cat (Option 1) or plural cats (Options 2 & 3)

In Situation 2, if you were talking about a single enzyme, you would refer to its complementary substrates. If you were talking about more than one enzyme, you would refer to their complementary substrates.

In this situation, I would discourage use of the singular their.

Whether you opt for a singular or a plural subject depends on the context. The verbs and pronouns simply have to follow suit.

  • 1
    I don't know if you've understood what they're asking about, but they intend to use "cat(s)", not "cat" or "cats". – userr2684291 Jul 30 '17 at 13:10
  • @userr2684291 Slow day! Ok: If the cat(s) run(s)........ – Ronald Sole Jul 30 '17 at 14:28
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    No worries. They're asking whether they should use they or it to refer to cat(s). The same with enzyme(s). – userr2684291 Jul 30 '17 at 14:35
  • @userr2684291 Correct. I'm wondering - when using "cat(s)" specifically - which pronouns I should use, and what the plurality should be for those pronouns, given the uncertainty in the quantity of the noun. – Charles Jul 30 '17 at 23:16
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I vote for the variants with they\their. See The Cambridge Guide to English Usage under heading they, them, their for details.

Excerpts: They/them/their are now freely used in agreement with singular indefinite pronouns and determiners, those with universal implications such as any(one), every(one), no(one), as well as each and some(one), whose reference is often more individual... The singular use of they/them/their after everyone and other indefinites can now be explained as a kind of “notional agreement” ...All this evidence from different quarters of the English-speaking world shows that singular use of they/them/their after indefinites is now well established in writing... The appearance of singular they/them/their in many kinds of prose shows its acceptance by English writers generally. It recommends itself as a gender-free solution to the problem of agreement with indefinite pronouns and noun phrases.

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