in their hands

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in their hands

Post by azz » Fri Sep 10, 2021 3:25 am

a. The students had a flower in their hands.
b. The students had a flower in their hand.


Are both sentences grammatically correct?

In (a) each student might be holding a single flower with both hands. But could the sentence be used if each student is holding one flower with one hand?

I think (b) makes it clear that each student is holding one flower in one hand. But is 'their hand' correct?

Many thanks.
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Re: in their hands

Post by Erik_Kowal » Fri Sep 10, 2021 4:51 am

The problem of unambiguously describing multiple students, each of whom is holding a single flower with one hand, cannot be resolved if you insist on starting your statement with "The students had a flower..." You have to say either "Each student had a flower..." or "The students each had a flower...", which amounts to the same thing.

From your description in a) we might even infer (however absurdly) that there are many students who are collectively holding a single flower with either one hand, with both hands, or with one hand in some cases and in other cases with two hands.

In terms of traditional grammar, the assertion in b) is non-standard because there is a mismatch between the plural quantity of students and the singular quantity of hands you refer to, since we can reasonably assume that they are not all either single or double amputees. (I say "traditional grammar", because in speech you could easily get away with it, even though not all members of your audience would necessarily infer an identical meaning from your utterance.) As I suggested above, to express your explicitly desired meaning you would have to say something like "Each student had/held a flower in one hand".

I don't understand why, when the language is quite capable of precisely describing your intended meaning without grammatical contortions, you feel the need to try to torture an inherently imprecise formulation into expressing a precise idea.
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Re: in their hands

Post by azz » Fri Sep 10, 2021 6:05 am

Thank you so much Erik and my apologies if my questions are irritating.

I usually know how to express an idea precisely, but there is this lurking worry that I might misunderstand something someone else has written. Generally what I say isn't that important anyway. And even if it is misunderstood it can, and eventually will, be rectified. What I hear is probably not that important either. A misunderstanding in an everyday conversation will generally not lead to a disaster. However, misunderstand a written text can cause problems, especially if you are translating it and if there are coworkers who are eager to see you slip. Hence my worries...

Many thanks.
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Re: in their hands

Post by tony h » Tue Sep 14, 2021 10:01 am

azz wrote: Fri Sep 10, 2021 6:05 am Thank you so much Erik and my apologies if my questions are irritating.
...
misunderstand a written text can cause problems, especially if you are translating it
Many thanks.
They do come across as irritating but probably because you write so well. What puzzles me is how you come up with these apparently bizarre alternatives. Your inclusion of "especially if you are translating it" gives a clue that maybe these questions are rooted more in active life than in some mind game.

Do tell us something about your translating. What language, what is the range of subject? I infer that it is commercial rather than academic. Is it translation or interpreting? I remember Phil schooling me on the difference and the implication for the methods used.

Regards
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Signature: tony

I'm puzzled therefore I think.

Re: in their hands

Post by azz » Wed Sep 15, 2021 8:50 am

Thank you both so much,

I used to translate scientific articles for a short period of time to make ends meet. It was a long time ago. There were college professors who were supposed to verify my translations, as I wasn't well-versed in the scientific aspects of the articles. They knew that, and had to check the translations to make sure no mistakes were made. Sometimes I found myself in what was virtually a contextual void. The meaning was obscure to me because I didn't know the science. I tried to use syntax to translate the article the best I could. That way my scientific editors would have less to do. I think I didn't make that many mistakes. The professors who read my work were happy with it. But I resigned after some time. Ever since then I have done some literary translations. But that job gave me the 'ambiguity bug'.


Now every time I hear a sentence that is a bit weird, an alarm goes off in my head. A lot of times, I think as I would be if I were translating. I don't go looking for weird sentences. But sometimes I think in English and say something and wonder: Is that correct? And sometimes, I read and hear something and begin wondering if what I have heard is ambiguous or not. I wonder what the correct meaning is.

I try to avoid these questions, as a matter of fact. My husband has more or less the same obsession though, and we can't help but talk about English. Sometimes we talk to each other in English...
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