Singular or plural when indicating something unique owned by many



In the following sentences, which one is correct?

  • Tom likes dogs with long tails.
  • Tom likes dogs with a long tail.

There are many tails because there are many dogs. But each dog has only one tail. I prefer the second sentence, but I am not sure if it's correct.


Posted 2015-12-14T08:16:11.037

Reputation: 481

1Just to add to the confusion, there's also an idiomatic form for expressing preference: "Tom likes a dog with a long tail." Taken literally, it refers to a specific dog. It can be used, however, to describe Tom's taste in dog tails in general. – talrnu – 2015-12-14T15:34:53.793



Both sentences are correct and understandable.

To this native speaker, the first sounds more native-spoken, even though there may be interpreted as many dogs each having multiple tails.

The second is more wordy and does not sound natural since we already know that dogs only have one tail. However, if the speaker further describes the tail then a would be used :

Tom likes dogs with a full, bushy tail.


Posted 2015-12-14T08:16:11.037

Reputation: 63 575

Your second point also indicates why not using "a" is acceptable in the first sentence -- because the multiple long tails are not multiple tails on a single dog, they are multiple types of long tails. Tom likes dogs with long tails, maybe they are bushy tails, maybe skinny, maybe it has a tuft of fur on the end, etc. – Dylan Cristy – 2015-12-14T19:26:54.657


I don't even know whether there's a rule here. For what it's worth:

Your first sentence is correct. The second one sounds kind of lame.

That said, there may be exceptions, such as when the plural form doesn't make sense while the singular does. As in:

I happen to like people with a good eye for architecture.


Posted 2015-12-14T08:16:11.037

Reputation: 2 828


This is correct:

  1. Tom likes dogs with long tails.

This one is also correct:

  1. Tom likes dogs with a long tail.

Refer to this book on Google Books.1

Here is an excerpt:

enter image description here

Have a good look at this chart from Google Books Ngram Viewer too:

enter image description here

1. Current Issues in Romance Languages


Posted 2015-12-14T08:16:11.037

Reputation: 3 063