I've found the following meme/caption/poster/whatever-it's-called on Twitter and I don't get why there's no determiner before "brain". I would normally assume it is one of those situations where you just don't need one but there is a determiner before "hands". I mean, I would either use a determiner before both nouns or not use it at all (more precisely, I would use it with both), but I don't get why someone would use a determiner only before "hands".

So why is it? In what way are brains different from hands in this sentence? Finally, would it be OK if I added "their" before "brain", or would that sound unnatural to a native speaker ear?

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  • 6
    It is not idiomatic without a determiner before "brain". You can change "brain" to "brains", and no determiner would be needed.
    – TimR
    Apr 8, 2016 at 18:50
  • 3
    @TRomano Thanks. I hadn't considered the sentence was wrong, but now that I looked a little bit more into it I found the following comments under the same meme on Reddit: "I think the point was that the sentence itself is incorrect", and ironically "Every time I see things like this with jacked up grammar, I envision foreign kids learning English and their final exam is to write a true sounding but completely made up 'fact'. Then I remember this was most likely made by someone whose first language is English and I become very sad", so that settles it. Should I delete the question?
    – Yay
    Apr 8, 2016 at 19:01
  • 1
    @snailboat Thank you. So what determiner would you suggest, a or their?
    – Yay
    Apr 8, 2016 at 19:05
  • 1
    'People with messy handwriting have brains that work faster than their hands' or 'Messy handwriting: a sign that your brain works faster than your hands.' or 'Messy handwriting, aka brain working faster than hands.'
    – ColleenV
    Apr 8, 2016 at 19:40
  • 4
    It may be ungrammatical, but there's a chance it could be intentionally ungrammatical – particularly if it was trying to mimic a "Confucius say" meme. (However, if that were the case, it would probably read better if it left out both determiners, i.e., "...have brain working faster than hands.")
    – J.R.
    Apr 8, 2016 at 22:22

4 Answers 4


People with messy handwriting have brain working faster than their hands.

This is not a grammatically correct sentence, though the meaning is still mostly clear. You suggested:

People with messy handwriting have their brain working faster than their hands.

This could work, but if you think about it, this sentence suggests that people can choose how fast their brain and/or hands work, and have those knobs set such that their brain is working faster than their hands.

TRomano suggested:

People with messy handwriting have brains working faster than their hands.

In this one, I take issue with the fact that hands has their before it, but brains has no such word.

I think it should be:

People with messy handwriting have brains that work faster than their hands.

This helps convey that they didn't choose the speed of their brain or hands, it's just part of who they are. And as a result of this speed difference, they have messy handwriting. It also implies that they are smarter than the average person, not that they have slow hands.

Whether this grammatical inaccuracy was intentional or not is hard to say. It could be that they were imitating (as some comments said) a "Confucius say" or "I can haz cheezburger" style meme, or trying to reference itself, suggesting that the writer of the meme's brain was working too fast to translate into proper text. I think it was more likely just a mistake.

  • Could you edit your answer to explain why you believe the 4th suggestion is better than the 3rd? Right now, it doesn't make sense, since all you've done to get from 3 to 4 is swap out a phrase for a relative clause. You say you don't like 3 because "hands" has the determiner "their," while "brains" doesn't, but 4 has the exact same problem. Could you add a version 5 where you discuss using the indefinite article a with the singular "brain," since this was mentioned in a comment under the question? Aug 4, 2023 at 1:35

In terms of normal everyday English, we would expect some sort of determiner before brain, be it their or the or a.

There are several ways that this sentence can be considered grammatical. The first is if the caption is seen to use 'headlinese', that is the type of English seen these days (but not always) in headlines; articles and other words such as the verb to be are omitted. Of course it would be better to be consistent and omit the their before hands also.

There is also a certain type of 'abbreviated' English (there may be a technical term to it, and it is similar but not the same as headlinese). This is the kind of English we use when we make lists or instructions, and in this case articles are omitted. So I could make a list of things to do and write

1 return book to library
2 drop off shirt at laundry
3 drive friends to movies

The articles are omitted in such a list.

Many recipes, which are instructions, leave out the the before oven in such a statement as

Preheat oven to 350°.

Then, of course, there are stereotypical but real signs such as

Beware of dog

Some people want to say that the is omitted before dog to save space. But it can't take that much more space to go ahead and include it. So this is some kind of cautionary statement. Perhaps the omission of an article is to avoid saying how many dogs are on the property, but why not just write 'Beware of Dogs'? Another interpretation is that dog could be considered as a 'unique role' here, and we can omit the article in that case ('We elected him to be president'.) For instance, someone could stick a sign up in front of the White House saying Beware of President and it would be grammatical. Here, though, dog would have to be thought of as short for something such as guard dog.

Whatever the case, the caption would be more consistent if it either used or omitted their before both brain and hands. And yes, certainly in unmarked or everyday spoken English, we would expect a determiner before brain.

It could also be an intended grammatical mistake to mean that people who write fast also make grammatical mistakes!

It is also grammatical if brain is being used as a non-count noun in the same sense as brain matter (analogous to grey matter). People are free to be creative with language and their use of words. However, we don't know the author's intention in this case.

Matter, when it means substance, is a non-count or 'uncountable' noun.


There should be a determiner there.

people with messy hand writing have their brain working faster then their hands

Or you could do;

people with messy hand writing have brain(s) that work faster then there hands

The determiner is an important noun modifier which provides introduces and provides context to a noun, often in terms of quantity and possession.

Read more at http://grammar.yourdictionary.com/parts-of-speech/nouns/what/what-is-a-determiner.html#6akuTi6TOhuzrDu0.99

This the reason you can take away the determiner and make the subject plural (in this sentence) instead. because the (s) explains the quantity so it would be redundant to use the determiner.

But you can't always do this (and you don't have to).


I believe the statement also depicts what it is trying to express, I understand because this happens to me all the time. So the statement shows that although the brain knows the correct sentence to put down being " people with messy handwriting have their brain working faster than their hands' But because the brain already moved on with the correct statement, the hand only types where it catches the brain. Hence the statement appearing to be in wrong English.

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