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A has one pencil, B has one pencil, and C has no pencil.

Can I describe it as

  1. “three people have two pencils.”
  2. “A group of three people has two pencils.”
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2 Answers 2

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Three people have two pencils.

This is ambiguous. My first thought is that each of the three has two pencils for a total of six pencils, which is not what you mean.

A group of three people has two pencils.

This is unambiguous because to have is conjugated in the singular, referring to the group as a whole instead of the individual members. But no native speaker would ever say this, except when devising a math problem. Besides, I find it a little hard to comprehend how a group of people (as a singular entity) can own such small and personal items as pencils, especially when there are fewer pencils than members of the group.

Instead:

Three people have two pencils between them.

This means exactly what you want: There are three people, and counting all of the pencils they own gives you the answer "two pencils."

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  • Can I use “collectively” or “as a group” instead of “between them”? Three people have two pencils collectively/as a group. Sep 6, 2021 at 3:00
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    No, those choices aren't idiomatic. The meaning would come across but it would sound unnatural to say it that way.
    – randomhead
    Sep 6, 2021 at 12:35
  • “collectively” is unusual, but I wouldn't say unnatural. (“as a group” is unnatural, though.)
    – wizzwizz4
    Sep 6, 2021 at 18:31
  • @Iloveeverybody That would imply a different meaning. Having something as a group implies that they are sharing the pencils. Sep 6, 2021 at 21:45
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As described, the group doesn't have three pencils. The natural way to express your situation is neither 1 nor 2 but:

"A and B have one pencil each, and C has no pencil."

The way you describe the context is not a group of three people sharing pencils, but two people with and one person without a pencil. Therefore saying "Three people have two pencils" is incorrect, as this implied that C has equal access to the pencils.

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