All the Boys Had a Black Eye or All the Boys Had Black Eyes?

“After the fight, all the boys had a black eye.”

Editors see sentences like this all the time. They’re painful. They remind us that, no matter how much we know about grammar and sentence structure, our powers are limited.

The problem, of course, is that the boys don’t share one eye. So, it doesn’t make sense in the singular. But if you made it plural, eyes, it would sound as though each had both eyes blackened.

You probably already see a way out of this. Just recast the sentence: Every boy had a black eye. That’s a great solution, when possible.

 But not every sentence can be recast. So what to do when you have no choice but to make the subject “all the boys”?

Don’t answer that yet, because I have more examples of sentences with agreement problems that put writers and editors in a bind.

“From carrot sticks to apple slices, healthy snacks give your child a boost of energy and a positive outlook — two things they will benefit from greatly as they go through their day.”

In this sentence, “they” and “their” are the issue. Theoretically, a singular “child” shouldn’t be referred to with “they” and “their.”

We’ve talked before about these “plural” pronouns representing singular subjects. In short, it’s fine (more on that in a minute). But today I’m talking about a problem that goes well beyond debates about singular “they.” And, as I explain in this recent column, sometimes it's best to set logic aside.

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