Clarifying a questionable notion about the proper use of “each”

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I’D like to take up a very common word that I myself trip over sometimes because of a notion that got stuck in my mind from way back as pretty well standard and logical. That word is “each,” and that persistent notion is that “each” must always be treated as singular no matter how it is positioned or used in a sentence.

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The confusion over its usage stems from the very definition of “each” as an adjective—“being one of two or more distinct individuals having a similar relation and often constituting an aggregate.” This obviously marks any noun preceded by “each” as singular, so expectedly, both the verb and any subsequent pronoun for that noun also need to be singular, as in these sentences: “Each tour guide needs an intensive job orientation.” “Each of the female job applicants was asked about her marital status.” “Each of the commercial establishments has to be equipped with its own CCTV.”

This very sensible grammar rule has served me well over the years, and I’ve never hesitated to recommend it to anyone asking for advice. As I was to discover much, much later, however, this rule for “each” gets completely overturned when the adjective comes after—not before—a plural subject. In such cases, the verb and any subsequent pronoun of that plural subject must likewise be plural in form: “Tour guides each need a one-month job orientation.” “The female job applicants each were asked about their marital status.” “The commercial establishments each have to be equipped with their own CCTV.”

This caveat about “each” when it comes right after a plural subject is provided by the usage notes of the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language and Random House Dictionary, and is also indicated by the Oxford Dictionary in its example for “each” as a determiner (“They each have their own personality”), so it’s clearly not right to assert that “each” always denotes something singular no matter its position in a sentence.

I say this because in early 2011, a U.S.-based Filipino reader asked me whether this sentence construction is correct: “Those basic interpretive guides each demonstrate that Exemption 7(C)’s protection for ‘personal privacy’ extends only to individuals.” Unaware of that caveat then, I said the plural verb form “demonstrate” should take the singular form “demonstrates” instead, and suggested that better still, that sentence should be reconstructed as follows:“Each of those basic interpretive guides demonstrates that Exemption 7(C)’s protection for ‘personal privacy’ extends only to individuals.”(Mea culpa.)
The word “each” has two other grammatical quirks that are also worth taking up here. As a pronoun, “each” means “each one,” and the rule is that the verb always takes the singular form when “each” comes immediately before that verb: “Each hails from a different city.”

“The applicants are all qualified, but each has to pass rigorous medical screening.”

Intriguingly, though, English gives much wider latitude for syntax when the adjective “each” follows a verb that has “we” as subject, such that it becomes acceptable to say “We girls each have our own pet peeves,” or “We girls have each our own pet peeves,” or even “We girls have each her own pet peeves.” (When “each” precedes the subject “us girls,” however, the syntax becomes more straightforward: “Each of us girls has our own pet peeves.”)

There’s just one other grammatical form using “each” that I’d like to take up before I close: “each and every.” Although it looks every inch like a compounding—hence pluralizing—modifier, “each and every” before a noun always needs the singular form of the verb and of subsequent pronouns, as in “Each and every knowledgeable legislator knows who really orchestrated that bungled mission but he or she doesn’t dare to say it publicly.”

That’s about all about “each.”

Visit Jose Carillo’s English Forum at http://josecarilloforum.com. Visit me on Facebook. Follow me at Twitter.com @J8Carillo. j8carillo@yahoo.com

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2 Comments

    • Yes, Henry, that grammatical rule is entirely misguided. It’s perfectly all right to use “all” with “except” or “but” to exclude something from a general assertion about a collectivity or total, as in “All except one of the 75 marathon runners made it to the finish line” and “All but you, please join me for dinner.” I wonder though how many nonnative English speakers still harbor that mistaken notion.