The Grammarphobia Blog

­­Number, please!

Q: I’m writing a press release and I’m stumped by this sentence: “Smart-phone users can now get television program schedules and information literally in the palm of their hands.” Because the subject is plural, I think “hands” is correct, but it sounds awkward. Please help!

A: As you suspect, this sentence has a number-agreement problem. The number at the front (the plural subject, “users”) doesn’t agree with the one at the back (the singular object “palm”).

To be strictly correct, one would need to pluralize “palm” as well as “hand,” and write “in the palms of their hands.”

But this expression commonly appears in the singular: “in the palm of the hand” (or “his hand” or “her hand” or “your hand”). You’re painting yourself in a corner when you start out with a plural subject.

Here’s how the numbers can be made to agree:

(1) If you stick with the plural “users,” the end of the sentence should read either “in the palms of their hands,” or (avoiding the possessive pronoun) “in the palm of the hand.”

(2) If you switch to a singular subject (“A smart-phone user …”), the end of the sentence should read “in the palm of the hand.” We’d avoid the gender issue (“his hand,” “her hand,” “his or her hand”). What about “their hand”? We had an On Language column in the New York Times last year about the lack of a universal third-person pronoun in English.

(3) If you want to simplify things, use “you” instead: “If you’re a smart-phone user, you can now get television program schedules and information literally in the palm of your hand.”

Our preference is for No. 3. This seems to avoid a lot of awkward problems, but it’s your call.

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