Guys can bring their girlfriends or girlfriend?

“‘Guys are allowed to bring their girlfriend/girlfriends to the event.’ Are both OK?”

That’s what a user on an English language message board wanted to know a while back. And if you’ve never thought about this issue before, prepare for some brain pain.
As you know, subjects and verbs should agree. You walk. He walks. The verb changes form to match the number of the subject. That’s agreement. But objects don’t agree with subjects. You may walk the dogs if there’s more than one. Or you may walk the dog if there’s just one. The subject and verb have no bearing on how many objects you have.

In some sentences, however, that doesn’t work out so well.

For example, try the plural object in our sentence above and you get: “Guys are allowed to bring their girlfriends.” That has a nice mathematical balance to it. There are a number of guys, along with a number of girls. So it’s true, yet the meaning isn’t clear. With “girlfriends” in the plural, you could be saying that every guy has more than one girlfriend — that each guy should bring all his girlfriends. Surely that’s not what the writer meant.

The singular object must fit the bill then, right? “Guys are allowed to bring their girlfriend.” But that seems to suggest that all the guys — no matter how many — share just one girlfriend. Doubtful that’s what the writer meant, either.

Regular readers of this column know that, often, when grammar gives you an either-or, which-is-right scenario, the answer is: both. It’s rare to come across a which-is-right question in grammar where the answer is: neither. But, technically, that’s the case here: Neither the plural object nor the singular object captures your exact meaning. That means neither is wrong, either. So just go with whatever you prefer and take comfort in these words from Barbara Wallraff’s “Word Court”: “When one is at pains to make clear that the individuals in the subject are to be paired one apiece with the persons, places or things in question, the number of the noun can’t be relied on to make the point.” More detail here in my recent column.

Tags: , ,