The Grammarphobia Blog

To each their own

Q: This plural use of “each” in the Washington Post strikes me as wrong: “The two proposals—one from Tillis and Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.) and the other from Sens. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.)—each seek to check the executive branch’s ability to fire a special counsel.”

A: That passage (from an article in the Aug. 3, 2017, issue of the Post) is not wrong. When “each” follows a plural subject, the verb is plural. (“Tillis” here refers to Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C.)

Cutting out the extraneous verbiage, we end up with this clause: “The two proposals each seek.” If we used a pronoun instead of the noun phrase, we’d end up with “They each seek.”

Both are correct. The verbs are plural because the subjects (“proposals” and “they”) are plural.

What is the grammatical function of “each” in a construction like this?

It’s an adjective, according to Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage. In the two examples we’ve just given, M-W would say that “each” modifies “proposals” in the first and “they” in the second.

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language takes a similar view, though it uses more complicated terminology.

Cambridge would call “each” here a determiner—specifically a “quantificational adjunct” that serves to quantify the subject. It has this example of “each” modifying a plural subject: “You each qualify for a prize.”

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) has a good explanation for the complexities of “each”:

“In standard usage, the subject of a sentence beginning with each is grammatically singular, and so the verb and following pronouns must be singular: Each of the apartments has (not haveits (not their) own private entrance (not entrances).

“When each follows a plural subject, however, the verb and subsequent pronouns remain plural: The apartments each have their own private entrances (not has its own private entrance).”

Note that “each” most often precedes a verb. But sometimes, especially in dated or formal English, “each” follows the verb. Here’s American Heritage on that point:

“When each follows the verb, it has been traditionally considered acceptable to say either The boys have each their own bike or The boys have each his own bike, though both of these (and especially the latter) are likely to seem stilted in comparison to The boys each have their own bike or The boys each have their own bikes.”

As a pronoun, “each” generally takes a singular verb: “Each has enough to eat” … “Each sees what he wants to see,” and so on. But, as the Merriam Webster’s usage guide notes, this is not an iron-clad rule.

In standard English, the pronoun “each” followed by “of” and a plural—as in “each of the refugees” or “each of us”—can be accompanied by either a singular or a plural verb.

We can say “each of the refugees is alone in the world,” but “each of us have our own opinions.”

In such “each of” constructions, M-W says, “It seems likely that notional agreement is the decisive force” in the choice of a singular or plural verb. (The concept of “notional agreement” is agreement based on meaning.)

“If you are thinking of each as individualizing, you will use the singular verb; if you think of it as collecting, you will use the plural,” the usage guide says. “Both singular and plural are standard, but singular is much more common.”

Merriam-Webster Unabridged, the most comprehensive Merriam-Webster dictionary, recognizes both singular and plural verbs as standard in these “each of” constructions.

The dictionary’s examples: “each of them is to pay his own fine” … “each of them are to pay their own fine.”

By the way, “each” can be an adverb as well as an adjective and a pronoun. As an adverb, according to standard dictionaries, it means “apiece,” as in “They want three cookies each.”

Small changes in the sentence can change the function of “each.” Here it’s an adjective: “They each want three cookies.” And here it’s a pronoun: “Each wants three cookies.”

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