A lawyer who attended my Legal Writing lecture emailed me an interesting question: can the term single out refer to more than one person or thing? Can we, for instance, write, “All the ladies were singled out to deliver the presentation”?

The online dictionaries do not indicate if the phrasal verb single out applies to just one person or one thing, although all their examples, except one, refer to one person or thing. Check out these examples:

Learner’s Dictionary

  • The teacher singled him out as the only student to get a perfect score on the test.
  • The coach singled out the players who played poorly. (In this example, the ones being singled out are many.)
  • The reviewer singled her performance out for praise/criticism.

Oxford Advanced American Dictionary

  • She was singled out for criticism.
  • He was singled out as the outstanding performer of the games.

I think that the phrasal verb single out refers to the act of distinguishing something from another, and that “something” can comprise more than one person or thing—considered as one group or one set.

While the adjective or noun single refers to only one, the phrasal verb single out doesn’t necessarily limit the action to a single thing or person. As a verb, it refers to the action of segregating, isolating, choosing, differentiating or discriminating—which has no reference to the number of people or things being segregated or differentiated.

Photo credit: La Nuova Vicenza

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