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April 4th, 2007

Each / youth or youths?

by Barbara Wallraff

Richard L. Cole, of Ann Arbor, Mich., writes: “Do I understand or misunderstand ‘each’? From a newspaper column on the anniversary of the loss of the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald: ‘The (Mariners’ Church) bell will be rung 29 times for each of the 29 men who were lost.’ I make that 841 peals. And according to an NPR broadcast, in addition to the Chairman, the Joint Chiefs of Staff includes ‘four members from each of the services.’ What’s the verdict? Was ‘each’ used incorrectly in each case?”

Dear Richard: Yes, you’re right -- those usages are incorrect. The bell was rung 29 times, once for each of the lost men. And the Joint Chiefs of Staff includes one member from each of the services.

“Each” isn’t the easiest of words to keep straight. Here’s something else about it that many people don’t realize: One should say “Each of the Joint Chiefs of Staff represents his service” but “The Joint Chiefs of Staff each represent their services.” When “each” comes at the beginning of a clause, the verb and any pronouns should be singular (“represents his”), but when it follows a plural noun, such as “Chiefs,” the verb and pronouns should be plural (“represent their”).

Paul Sutherland, of Saratoga Springs, N.Y., writes: “The word ‘youths’ strikes me the wrong way. I wouldn’t say ‘I saw many deers yesterday,’ yet I hear some say ‘All youths are invited.’ What gives?”

Dear Paul: When a word bothers you, it’s usually at least interesting to ask yourself why. And comparing it with another word you’re more sure of can be a good way to figure out whether it’s just you or if there really is something peculiar about the word and how it’s used. But you need to be careful what other word you use for comparison. “Deer” and “youth” don’t have much in common. “Deer,” with a plural form the same as its singular, is one of a group of names for creatures that, in times long ago, were hunted or fished. Other examples are “moose” and “elk” and “salmon” and “trout.” Let’s be glad that “youths” don’t belong to this category.

The word “youth” is a lot more adaptable than “deer.” It can mean “the time when one is young” as well as “young people collectively” or “a young person.” When it has either of those first two meanings -- as in “in my youth” (abstract) or “our nation’s youth” (collective) -- it doesn’t need a plural. I imagine you’re interpreting the word as being collective in your “All youths are invited” sentence. But it shouldn’t be. One would say “All children (plural) are invited” or “All boys (plural) are invited.”

So “child” and “boy” are the right kind of words to compare with “youth” in your sentence. And when “youth” means “a young person,” like those other words, its plural is -- sorry! -- “youths.” To me, it sounds better that way. Never mind that “Five deer were seen jumping over a fence” is right, and “Five deers ...” is wrong. Doesn’t “Five youths were seen jumping over the fence after them” sound better than “Five youth were seen ...”? I hope you agree, because “five youths” is right, and “five youth” is wrong.

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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