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Which of these sentences is better?

The water usage of Alice and Bob are different.

The water usage of Alice and Bob is different.

The first one seems better because we can treat two uncountable nouns (Alice's water usage and Bob's water usage) as two things. But is either of the sentences better than the other?

Here let's assume "usage" is an uncountable noun.

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    I would say "Bob's and my water usages are different." I would never say "The water usage of I is....." OR "The water usage of me is....." The only similar construction I can imagine using is "That water usage of mine is ...." Since I cannot possibly imagine using the phrase ""The water usage of Bob [and I/me]..."_ I am having a difficult time coming up with a conjugation of any subsequent verbs. – Adam Aug 3 '16 at 22:40
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    As Native English speakers, we put ourselves through many contortions to avoid the decision about whether to use a pronoun in the objective case, particularly the first person pronoun. It's one of the corners into which the "rules" of grammar have painted us. The "right" thing sounds wrong, and the "wrong" thing doesn't sound much better. One result in dialect is the use of all objective pronouns as subjective: "Me and them are going..." – P. E. Dant Reinstate Monica Aug 3 '16 at 22:54
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    I would never say "water usage OF Bob". Agree with Adam: Bob's and my water usages are different. But, more usual: My water usage and Bob's water usage ARE different. – Lambie Aug 4 '16 at 0:10
  • @Lambie Of course no native speaker would phrase the thought in that way. The OP's question, though, is not "What would Adam or Lambie say?" He wants to know if either sentence is correct, and when mass nouns and pronouns are involved, correctness and prevalence may diverge. – P. E. Dant Reinstate Monica Aug 4 '16 at 1:45
  • @P. E. Dante In any even, of I is incorrect. It has nothing to do with prevalence. It is an outright mistake. Do I do myself clear? Why let him assume that water usage OF I is right at all? It really isn't about prevalence. Of I is not "prevalent". And you actually take it seriously in your first comment in your answer... – Lambie Aug 4 '16 at 13:43
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There are a couple of issues here.

It is not idiomatic to say "the water usage of me" or "the water usage of him". We say "my|your|his|her|our|their water usage".

The hat of me (no)
My hat (yes)

For that reason, native speakers naturally tend to avoid phrases like "the water usage of him and me" or "the water usage of Bob and me". Does that mean no native speaker would ever say "The water usage of Bob and me is different"? No, it does not; but such usage is an outlier statistically.

A native speaker with a developed sense of grammatical foresight would not make "water usage" the subject of the sentence, because if they do, they get into hot water when trying to express the idea that the thing is not something shared but two things which are distinct and being compared; and that problem persists even if the noun is countable:

The friends of Bob and me...

Are we talking about Bob's friends as distinct from my friends, or about our mutual friends?

The water usage(s) of Bob and me...

Are you and Bob roommates or housemates? Neighbors? Making a usually non-count noun countable helps to clarify, but there is still some dissonance: "the hat of me".

To express the idea of distinct comparands clearly, we state each comparand separately:

Bob's water usage and mine vary considerably.

Bob's water usage and my own vary considerably.

My water usage and Bob's vary considerably.

My own water usage and Bob's vary considerably.

Bob's water usage and my water usage are not all that different.

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  • +1 for "grammatical foresight," @TRomano. I was grasping at such a term in my comments and couldn't get hold of it. – P. E. Dant Reinstate Monica Aug 4 '16 at 17:30
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The correct version is

The water usage [of Bob and I]1 is different

Here, Bob and I are in a prepositional phrase. The sentence's subject is the singular usage.

However, usage (like uses) is also used as a count noun. See Oxford dictionary; so I don't see anything wrong with

The water usages of Bob and I are different.

To answer in general, a singular uncountable noun will take a singular verb, even if the noun refers to "multiple things." There are very few nouns in English that can only be used as uncountable or mass nouns, but the following is an example:

The fun that Bob and Henry and George and Sue had at the water park was incredible.

This narrows down to

The fun was incredible.

You can use a prepositional phrase, as in your sentence; for example:

The fun of the summer and spring and fall is not as much as that of winter.


1 Some speakers insist that the correct version of this prepositional phrase should be of Bob and me, just like the correct version would be of me; but you will hear native speakers use of Bob and I also. On a test, I would put of Bob and me, because that is what most tests want to hear.

On the issue of which pronoun to use when they are connected with and, see Case and coordination, a section in A Student's Introduction to English Grammar by Rodney Huddleston, Geoffrey K. Pullum.

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    "Shouldn't of take the objective case of I?" is a common question. There are really two questions here, one of which is a common source of confusion for learners: the objective case of the first person pronoun and how/when to use it - and why "the water usages of I" would never be heard or written. I was about to send the questioner here. – P. E. Dant Reinstate Monica Aug 3 '16 at 22:19
  • @P.E.Dant The user asks only one question, about uncountable or mass nouns, and I am afraid the discussion about the pronouns is bound to be distracting and confusing. Nevertheless, I've put in a footnote. – Alan Carmack Aug 3 '16 at 23:28
  • It sounds a little strange to me. If "The water usage of Bob and I is different" and "Bob's water usage and my water usage are different" are both correct, and they have the same meaning, then they seem not consistent since one uses the singular verb while the other uses the plural verb. Thanks for pointing out "of me" and the plural form "usages", although they are not under my consideration here. – tankgong Aug 3 '16 at 23:38
  • @tankgong Well, it sounds a little strange to us, too, and we are native speakers! Alan's answer to your question is excellent. Read it carefully to understand why the plural and singular verb forms are used. If you want to learn more about "me" and "I" and when to use them, the link he provides is a fine place to start. – P. E. Dant Reinstate Monica Aug 3 '16 at 23:45
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    To follow up, "The water usage of Bob and I is different" sounds strange because "one thing" cannot be different (from itself) and only "multiple things" can be different (from each other), and "is" sounds meaning "one thing". – tankgong Aug 4 '16 at 0:07

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