Imagine you're writing about a gathering of parents of one-child families -- a support group, maybe, or perhaps some kind of political movement. Would it be better to write, “Six hundred parents brought their child” or “six hundred parents brought their children”? The former seems to suggest that six hundred people all share just one kid. The second could be interpreted to mean that some or all of them had multiple kids.
This is not a new issue by any stretch, but it’s one that continues to drive me nuts in my editing work.
Another example: “About two dozen customers had their car serviced” or “… had their cars serviced”?
Another: “Flood victims should read their homeowner policy” or “policies”?
Obviously, you can often sidestep this problem, especially with the word “each.” Six hundred parents attended, each with his or her child in tow.”
But what about when you can’t or just don’t want to?
In theory, I prefer the plural object. Six hundred parents don’t share one child. True, “Six hundred parents brought their children” does not make it clear that each had only one. But at least it doesn’t say all those parents possess a singular child. In other words, it doesn’t explain how the kids are divvied up. But at least you know you’re not divvying up just one.
But then I come across stuff like this Los Angeles Times excerpt, and see it’s not so simple: “The drugs help patients who have had heart attacks” really does sound like each patient had multiple.
The editor in me wants a precise way of dealing with this. The rest of me knows better.