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I know subject-object agreement do not actually exist. However, it is causing me some problems when I write.

I read an article that said

Consider these sentences: "All the people in the audience raised their hand." "Homeowners should check to make sure that the insurance policy they choose has a low deductible." "In the United States, very few teenagers own a motorcycle."

Clearly, people don't share a single hand, homeowners don't share a single policy with a single deductible, and teenagers don't share a single motorcycle. But what happens when we try to make these more logical?

"All the people in the audience raised their hands" sounds as though every person there raised two hands into the air.

So with this in my mind, I wrote this sentence.

The ranch workers were destined to live a horrible life, for they were haunted by loneliness.

Because, if I say horrible lives, it will sound as if they have more than one life to live, like cats with nine lives!

Or am I wrong? When does the logic provided in the article work with objects? Do I just have to use singular every time there is a plural subject?

Also, if it is lives, what is the difference between my example and the examples in the article?

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    Use lives. Since there are plural ranch workers, there are plural lives involved. I have more to say about this but I don't have time right now. Most teenagers don't own motorcycles would not usually be interpreted to mean most teenagers don't own more than one motorcycle. Sentences don't work by rules of logic. If you want to stress one object of each person you can use the singular: Students, raise your hand when you are done does not suggest in actual usage that plural students share one hand. It means that the teacher wants each student to raise one hand and not two hands. – Alan Carmack Aug 4 '16 at 15:25
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    If you wanted to stress the single life of each rancher, you could say The ranch workers were each destined to live a horrible life, for they were haunted by loneliness. See also my answer here, which discusses this in the context of other possible errors in a sentence. Skip down to As to the idea that house should be plural... – Alan Carmack Aug 4 '16 at 15:26
  • @AlanCarmack Would you be so kind as to answer my question and hopefully explain the differences between them should you have time? – whitedevil Aug 4 '16 at 16:11
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You could say either "life" or "lives," but I take them to have different meanings.

The ranch workers were destined to live a horrible life, for they were haunted by loneliness.

In this sentence, I would assume that the loneliness the ranch workers were haunted by is a result of their being ranch workers. Because they are all doing the same thing and lonely for the same reason, they have a horrible life and not lives because there is little separating the individual ranch workers. Metaphorically, they are all living the same life.

The ranch workers were destined to live horrible lives, for they were haunted by loneliness.

I would interpret this to mean that each of the ranch workers was lonely, but that they were not necessarily lonely for the same reason (i.e. because they are ranch workers). Unlike in the above sentence, they are not (metaphorically) living the same life.

I didn't find it particularly easy to articulate that, so if it could be clearer please let me know.


I think context plays a large part in interpreting these sorts of sentences, and even then some sentences may sound nonsensical.

All the people in the audience raised their hands.

We all know that hand-raising usually involves raising only one hand, and we can safely assume that everyone in the audience has at least one hand, so it's clear to the reader that the audience members are individually raising a hand.

In other situations, it may be best to rewrite the sentence. I'm shamelessly stealing this example from EL&U:

Corporations may not have a conscience, but they do have PR departments.
Corporations may not have consciences, but they do have PR departments.
Corporations may not have a conscience, but they do have a PR department.

Which of these is correct? Definitely not the third one (which states that all corporations have a single lack of conscience and a single PR department), and while the the second one is more favourable than the first, these sentences could be rewritten into an unambiguous form:

A corporation may not have a conscience, but it does have a PR department.

Here we run into some other difficulty. Your sentence isn't as simple as this one, mostly because you're using the definite article. You could say:

The ranch workers were each destined to live a horrible life, for they were haunted by loneliness.

By using each, the sentence now refers to the ranch workers individually and separately, so using the singular is unambiguous.

  • For you, "All the people in the audience raised their hands" does not sound as though every person there raised two hands into the air? – whitedevil Aug 4 '16 at 15:51
  • That sentence is ambiguous, so it could be interpreted either way. Because the sensible option is that each person raised one hand, that is the way I expect most people will interpret it. – LMS Aug 4 '16 at 15:58
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The ranch workers were destined to live horrible lives, for they were haunted by loneliness.

This sentence is grammatically correct, and will be understood just fine. [1] The problem with using a horrible life is it sounds like they collectively have one life. You could use a horrible life if you phrased like this:

The ranch workers were destined to each live a horrible life, for they were haunted by loneliness.

The each makes it clear that there isn't just one life.

[1] I do admit it sounds weird though.

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