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Reading Hammer's grammar and usage 4th edition, Page 30.

It's says that german uses a singular noun if more than one person is mentioned in the sense of items of clothing or parts of the body.

Hammer gives an example , "Ihnen klopfte das Herz" meaning "their hearts were beating".

Are there any other resources that could expand on this aspect of german?

Are there any exceptions to this rule ?

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  • The aspect that you are looking for is: the appropriate description of biological fact. Humans have (normally) only one heart. The statement Ihnen klopften die Herzen would imply that each person had many hearts. For me, the true question is not why German uses singular (in accordance with biological fact), but why English uses plural (deviating from biological fact). Aug 11, 2021 at 15:07
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    @BjörnFriedrich: "The statement Ihnen klopften die Herzen would imply that each person had many hearts." - That is not true. "Ihnen klopften die Herzen." can be legitimately interpreted in two (or even three) ways: 1) Each of them has one heart. 2) Each of them has several hearts. 3) All of them share an unspecified number of hearts. Likewise, "Ihnen klopfte das Herz." can be interpreted in two ways: 1) Each of them has one heart. 2) All of them share a single common heart. Which interpretation is correct can exclusively be derived from contextual knowledge. Aug 11, 2021 at 15:57
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    @O.R.Mapper: Can you create an answer with this content? It is easier to format and can be upvoted that way....
    – guidot
    Aug 11, 2021 at 16:12
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    @guidot: Not unless I know how to answer the question. So far, my comment merely confirms the premise of the question, but doesn't answer it. Aug 11, 2021 at 16:52
  • @BjörnFriedrich: Man sagt im Deutschen auch "Sie sattelten ihre Pferde", auch wenn jeder nur ein Pferd hat und nur eines sattelt. Aug 13, 2021 at 15:00

1 Answer 1

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The assumption

German uses a singular noun if more than one person is mentioned in the sense of items of clothing or parts of the body

is wrong. At least if you interpret it as an absolute proposition. Here are some counterexamples:

  • In catholic masses there is a liturgic formula spoken by the priest:

    Erhebet die Herzen! (English: Lift up your hearts!; Latin: Sursum corda!)

  • Bible, Lukas 21:28:

    Wenn aber dies anfängt zu geschehen, so richtet euch auf und erhebt eure Häupter, weil eure Erlösung naht.

  • And of coarse you also find a lot of examples in the internet:
    • Zeigt her eure Nasen!
      weekly magazine Brigitte
    • Warum haben Männer größere Nasen als Frauen?
      German edition of National Geographic
    • Indische Springameisen schrumpfen ihre Gehirne
      monthly magazine GEO
    • Teenager verbrennen absichtlich ihre Zungen
      daily newspaper heute
    • Warum messen Jungs ihre Penise?
      question&answer board gutefrage.net

Fact is, that in German we use both forms. Both forms are correct but the meaning differs in small nuances:

  • Singular

    Ihnen klopfte das Herz.

    Here you claim that the heart of every single person beats. You put the focus on the fact that everybody has just one heart. And this single and therefor precious heart was beating.

  • Plural

    Ihnen klopften die Herzen.

    Here you say, that everybody's heart was beating. You put the focus on the fact, that this is something that happens with all hearts.

So, you use singular, when you want to point out that the owner's relationship to their singular organ is important and you use plural if it's important that something happens to everybody.

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  • Careful, older (like here liturgical or biblical texts) often use outdated or today uncommon turns of phrase.
    – vonbrand
    Aug 23, 2021 at 1:13
  • @vonbrand: But modern newspapers and magazines don't. Aug 23, 2021 at 5:09

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