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I am aware that this structure is called "distributive plurals". However, after much research, I feel no closer to the answer. I am writing for a website where the gender of the Members is not known.

I wrote:

How can Members change their password?

This sounds right to me. It doesn't indicate to me that there is one collective account. If I wrote:

How can members change their passwords?

doesn't that indicate there is more than one password for each member?

I should say I have been using this style throughout, but I am not sure it is correct. I have read that a plural pronoun should be followed by a plural noun.

The client wants the site to be impersonal, so I cannot write,

How can I change my password?

Should I write:

How can a Member change the Member's password?

or should I use the plural pronoun here?

Any help in solving this for me would be much appreciated. :)

Edit: Sorry, I am actually referring to using plural possessive pronouns for singular nouns.

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I feel no closer to the answer.

I feel that there is no real answer: English lacks the precision to express this clearly in the form you are using.

We only have guidance:

Teacher [to students]: "On the trip, students must not stick their head/heads out of the bus window/windows. Students must keep their hand/hands on their knee/knees."

Each student has only one head but the bus has many windows, but one head can only be stuck out of one window at a time.

Each student has two hands and two knees.

The guidance that the teacher is talking to the students individually and simultaneously. Each student hears the words as if they apply to him/her individually and so each sentence is phrased as if the teacher were talking to only one student.

Thus

Teacher [to students]: "On the trip, students must not stick their head out of the bus window. Students must keep their hands on their knees."

And then

The students had a wonderful trip to the firing range where bullets flew over their head/heads.

The students had a wonderful trip to the firing range where bullets flew over their heads. Because the bullets went over many heads and there was no individual reference.

Thus in

How can members change their passwords?

You are addressing all members individually and simultaneously, and “passwords” suggests that each member has more than one password.

How can members change their password?

You are addressing all members individually and simultaneously, and this suggests that each member has one password.

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  • While I understand your point, I think it would be better writing to use "heads" and "windows" in your example, because the group is being addressed, and collectively the group has many heads just as the bus has many windows. I would use "passwords" for a similar reason, the members collectively have many. But both forms are commonly used, and would normally be correctly understood. Few would actually think, other than as a joke, that the use of "heads" implied that the students each have more than one. – David Siegel Dec 15 '20 at 17:21
  • @DavidSiegel Hmm... Obviously, I don't agree. The idea of addressing a crowd with an offer/command that applies to each member individually requires that the object reflect reality in number. This can be shown in the 2nd person plural when addressing a group: "You should not put your head out of the window." The use of singular emphasises that each among them is being addressed and also the individual responsibility – Greybeard Dec 15 '20 at 17:31
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Both uses are mainly synonymous. However, to avoid the danger of making people think of more than one password for each user, you can safely use the singular (password).

I don't quite understand your sentence "plural pronoun should be followed by a plural noun". Where have you read that? There are plenty of examples that invalidate it:

Our house, their school, our body

and the list can go one. Certainly, you can play with singulars and plurals to mean different things, but I will not harp on on the subject.

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  • Thank you for your answer. Yes, you're right. In the examples you have given there is more than one person claiming ownership over something. In my question there is one account for one person. – StackOverflow Dec 15 '20 at 16:12
  • It helps if you give an example. Maybe you mean that a plural noun should be always replaced by a plural pronoun? – fev Dec 15 '20 at 16:14
  • It is actually correct, because it refers to the property of having a password that all Members have in common. – fev Dec 15 '20 at 16:24
  • Thanks, I went down the rabbit hole and started to overthink the perceived problem. – StackOverflow Dec 15 '20 at 16:28
  • splitting hairs! As a non-native, I perfectly understand. Read this. I think it will help you. – fev Dec 15 '20 at 16:31
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Both of

  • How can Members change their password?

  • How can members change their passwords?

are correct and natural, and both forms are commonly used. In this use "their" isn't really a plural pronoun, it is effectively singular. Personally, I would favour the second, because there are multiple passwords, one per member, but the other form is fine.

If you want to avoid the use of "singular they" you could instead write

  • How can a member change his or her password?

  • How can a member change that member's own password?

The meaning is the same, this is a difference of style and preference. English does not have non-gendered singular possessive pronouns. Attempts to coin such a term have not gained wide acceptance. The use of "they" (and related forms such as "their") for a single person of unstated or unknown gender has hundreds of years of history in English, and in recent decades has become significantly more common. It must now be accepted as part of normal usage, whether one likes it or not.

You write "I have read that a plural pronoun should be followed by a plural noun." This is not a general overriding rule. There are cases where this is required by the meaning. For example:

The riders choose their horses.

There are other cases where it is not. For example:

The jurors were taken to their room.

In general, where the noun represents a single thing shared by the group or used by each member of the group, it will be singular, and where there is a group of similar things, often one for each person in a group, a plural noun is normal. But one can find exceptions to that, also. Some nouns, like "pants", always use a plural form, for example (because they were once two separate garments, one for each leg).

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  • Thanks for your great answer. I played around with using "his or her" but it was just too clunky and a bit wordy. I may just use "their" because it is solves all my issues. Or Indeed just leave it as it is at the moment. – StackOverflow Dec 15 '20 at 16:46

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