Their heads

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At the How Appealing blawg, on June 25, Howard Bashman posted a passage from Judge Richard A. Posner's opinion in the Conrad Black case, including these sentences:

The reference of course is to the legend that ostriches when frightened bury their head in the sand. It is pure legend and a canard on a very distinguished bird.

Mr. Bashman's comment:

[W]hile we are debunking canards (which, by contrast, are birds that can fly), allow me to question the use of the singular "head" in the following sentence from Judge Posner's opinion: "The reference of course is to the legend that ostriches when frightened bury their head in the sand."

On June 26, Mr. Bashman posted an email from Judge Posner:

Dear Prof. Bashman, to say "ostriches hide their heads in the sand" would imply that each ostrich had more than one head.

In this case, my own intuitions are on Mr. Bashman's side. Under the theory that each ostrich has an individual and unique head, different from those of other ostriches, the phrase "Ostriches hide their heads in the sand" seems entirely appropriate, whereas "Ostriches hide their head in the sand" raises distracting questions. What is this head? Perhaps it's the shrunken head of a lion, handed down from their heroic ancestors; or perhaps this phrase refers to their elected or hereditary leader, the Head Ostrich, who must be protected in a siliceous bunker.

But as you know, we don't privilege any one person's linguistic whims, not even mine. Instead, let's look at the precedents.

What we'll learn is that the distributed meaning of the plural "their heads" — one per individual — is sanctioned by the habitual usage of many esteemed writers. The singular version "their head" has two interpretations, one that is semantically singular (meaning "their leader" or the like), and one where again there are many heads, distributed one per individual. In the distributed meaning, where each individual has a unique and individual head, the plural heads is substantially more common than the singular head; use of the singular is roughly equally divided between its two meanings.

As a point for further investigation, I note that some examples of "their heads" seem to work equally well with the singular "head" substituted, but in other cases, this substitution is more problematic or even grammatically impossible.

I interpret the evidence to mean that ostriches may be said to hide either "their heads" or "their head", but "their heads" is more widely used and is clearer.

Let's start with a couple of examples from the writings of Thomas Jefferson. This example is from his autobiography:

They took all the arms, discharged the prisoners, and such of the garrison as were not killed in the first moment of fury, carried the Governor and Lt. Governor to the Place de Grève (the place of public execution) cut off their heads, and sent them thro' the city in triumph to the Palais royal.

And from a letter to Philip Mazzei, Monticello, Apr. 24, 1796:

It would give you a fever were I to name to you the apostates who have gone over to these heresies, men who were Samsons in the field & Solomons in the council, but who have had their heads shorn by the harlot England.

All examples in Jefferson's works of "their head" are cases where the head is indeed singular:

Possessing the confidence and intimacy of the leading patriots, & more than all of the Marquis Fayette, their head and Atlas, who had no secrets from me, I learnt with correctness the views & proceedings of that party; while my intercourse with the diplomatic missionaries of Europe at Paris, all of them with the court, and eager in prying into it's councils and proceedings, gave me a knolege of these also.

(Note again how lucky it is that Lynne Truss was not alive in the 18th century.)

More recent politicians seem to agree with Jefferson's pattern of usage, for example John F. Kennedy's Remarks at the American Farm Bureau Federation National Convention, 12/12/1956:

But my intention has been not to deprecate your importance as farmers but to appreciate your importance as citizens — citizens who are interested in more than farm issues, affected by more than farm profits and convinced by more than expensive farm promises — citizens who vote not as a bloc but as thoughtful individuals, not with their pocketbooks but with their heads and their hearts.

Turning to judicial language, and searching U.S. Supreme Court opinions, we find examples of "their heads" in a large number of opinions. Thus in Lee v. Weisman, Justice Scalia wrote:

Most recently, President Bush, continuing the tradition established by President Washington, asked those attending his inauguration to bow their heads, and made a prayer his first official act as President.

There's certainly no reason to believe that all (or even any) of the guests at President Bush's inauguration were polycephalous.

The King James version of the bible also has a large number of instances, for example:

Genesis: And they bowed down their heads, and made obeisance.

Kings: So they girded sackcloth on their loins, and put ropes on their heads, and came to the king of Israel, and said, Thy servant Ben-hadad saith, I pray thee, let me live.

Isaiah: He is gone up to Bajith, and to Dibon, the high places, to weep: Moab shall howl over Nebo, and over Medeba: on all their heads shall be baldness, and every beard cut off.

Lamentations: The elders of the daughter of Zion sit upon the ground, and keep silence: they have cast up dust upon their heads; they have girded themselves with sackcloth: the virgins of Jerusalem hang down their heads to the ground.

Matthew: And they that passed by reviled him, wagging their heads, And saying, Thou that destroyest the temple, and buildest it in three days, save thyself.

Turning to a professional writer, in the works of Mark Twain we find 102 instances of "their heads" in 26 works.  There are 17 instances in Innocents Abroad, starting with these three:

There is not a wheelbarrow in the land — they carry everything on their heads, or on donkeys, or in a wicker-bodied cart, whose wheels are solid blocks of wood and whose axles turn with the wheel.

Here are five thousand Jews in blue gabardines, sashes about their waists, slippers upon their feet, little skullcaps upon the backs of their heads, hair combed down on the forehead, and cut straight across the middle of it from side to side — the selfsame fashion their Tangier ancestors have worn for I don't know how many bewildering centuries.

Nine-tenths of them wear nothing on their heads but a filmy sort of veil, which falls down their backs like a white mist.

And finally, in the Oxford English Dictionary, we find that the example sentences include 873 instances of "their heads". The first three, in alphabetical order of head word, are:

1703 MOXON Mech. Exer. 4 The About Sledge is the biggest Hammer of all, and..they hold the farther end of the Handle in both their Hands, and swinging the Sledge above their Heads, they..let fall as heavy a Blow as they can upon the Work.
1668 EVELYN Mem. (1857) III. 209 Those, therefore, who..accustom to wash their heads, instead of powdering, would doubtless find the benefit of it.
1880 R. BROUGHTON Sec. Th. I. I. xii. 206 Most of them are standing acrobatically on their heads.

The phrase "their head" occurs 173 times. I haven't checked them all, but the first six are evenly divided:

1912 S. A. LAFONE QUEVEDO Great Chanca Confederacy iii. 9 The Abipón nation..claimed nobility for their head men.
1658 J. ROBINSON Eudoxa v. 142 They dare not seem to worship the bread, by kneeling before it; yet will they reverence it with their head bare; which is no gesture befitting familiar accumbency, and fraternal communion.
1696 PHILLIPS, Acephalists, a sort of Hereticks, whose first founder is unknown; also Vagabond Clergymen, having neither King nor Bishop for their Head.
1671 MILTON Samson 192 In prosperous days They swarm, but in adverse withdraw their head.
1607 TOPSELL Four-footed Beasts (1673) 7 Yet is their head and tip of their tail yellow, so that the Martins before mentioned, seem to be affianced to these.
1635 E. PAGITT Christianogr. App. 18 They had submitted to the Pope of Rome, and agnized him their Head.

If this is the overall percentage, then 873/((873+(173/2))) = 91% of distributed meanings for "their head(s)" use the plural.

But in fact, the percentage in many sources seems to be higher than this. Searching Shakespeare at Literature Online, I find that he used "their heads" 85 times in 52 works (though many are duplicates), for example this passage from King Henry the Fifth:

Constable of France:  If the English had any apprehension, they would run away.
Duke of Orleans:  That they lack; for if their heads had any intellectual armour, they could never wear such heavy head-pieces.
Rambures:  That island of England breeds very valiant creatures; their mastiffs are of unmatchable courage.
Duke of Orleans:   Foolish curs, that run winking into the mouth of a Russian bear and have their heads crushed like rotten apples.

All of these examples seem to be the distributed reading, in which each of a number of individuals has a unique head. In contrast, Shakespeare used "their head" only once, in Romeo and Juliet, where the Prince says to Montague:

Seale vp the mouth of outrage for a while,
Till we can cleare these ambiguities,
And know their spring, their head, their true descent,
And then will I be generall of your woes,
And lead you euen to death?

And in this case, there is indeed just one head for all the ambiguities.


  1. Sridhar said,

    June 29, 2008 @ 5:04 am

    "Isaiah: He is gone up to Bajith, and to Dibon, the high places, to weep: Moab shall howl over Nebo, and over Medeba: on all their heads shall be baldness, and every beard cut off."

    I don't think this is a relevant example; "their heads" here, my intuition screams, simply cannot be replaced with "their head", though I can't at the moment quite put my finger on the exact reason why.

  2. Mark Liberman said,

    June 29, 2008 @ 5:17 am

    Sridar: "…on all their heads shall be baldness…" … "their heads" here, my intuition screams, simply cannot be replaced with "their head", though I can't at the moment quite put my finger on the exact reason why.

    I believe that it's because of the "all". The phrase "all their head" is not grammatical in standard English, I think.

  3. Rubrick said,

    June 29, 2008 @ 5:28 am

    You've marshalled an impressive amount of evidence in support of a point which I suspect the vast majority of people would have agreed with without it. :-)

  4. Mark Liberman said,

    June 29, 2008 @ 5:44 am

    Rubrick: You've marshalled an impressive amount of evidence in support of a point which I suspect the vast majority of people would have agreed with without it.

    Well, Richard Posner is not chopped liver.

    In fact, I don't care about the difference between "ostriches hide their heads" and "ostriches hide their head". But I'd like to introduce people to the idea that questions of usage can be addressed not only by consulting one's intuitions, but also by looking at evidence of a less individual, subjective and unreliable kind.

  5. mmm said,

    June 29, 2008 @ 7:10 am

    "Head(s)" is (are?) but one instance of the broader problem. How about "their wives"? Or, for that matter, their books, pens, schools, cars, ostriches, etc? The ambiguity is inherent in all of these.

  6. john riemann soong said,

    June 29, 2008 @ 7:51 am

    It does slightly remind me of the problem of inalienable/alienable possession…

  7. alex boulton said,

    June 29, 2008 @ 8:55 am

    Once again, usage beats logic. French tends to be different, favouring the singular. It's difficult to do exactly the same analysis, but "leur tête" ("their head") gets 789,000 Google hits; "leurs têtes" ("their heads") gets 210,000. More useful perhaps are usages such as "cut their heads off": "leur couper la tête" (singular) gets 3,090 hits, while "leur couper les têtes" (plural) gets only 3. It seems that, in French, the "lots of people, one head each" reasoning beats the (English) "lots of people, lots of heads altogether" reasoning. I don't see how one can seriously be argued to be more logical than the other in and of itself, and this highlights (yet again) how spurious it is to promote a particular usage (or, more frequently, condemn a usage) on the grounds of "logic".

    My problem comes up in marking translation: the marking system here is exclusively penalty-based (ie taking points off for "wrong" translations), and students don't see why they should be penalised for something which isn't "wrong". Yes, yes, I know, but you try getting a student to understand that!


  8. Chris Weimer said,

    June 29, 2008 @ 10:22 am

    I have to agree that the ambiguity is clear in both cases. It may also be interesting to know that in Latin, the singular head would most likely have been used, with the plural indicating more than one, according to common speech. It goes for abstract nouns as well, such as "ten thousand soldiers lost their life". But there is some still ambiguity, and I suppose this is why context is always appropriate.

    Chris Weimer
    University of Memphis

  9. Jamie said,

    June 29, 2008 @ 10:24 am

    In Spanish, the rule is to use the form appropriate for a single individual from the group (“Las avestruces se ocultan la cabeza en la arena.”), so saying “heads” would imply that each ostrich has more than one head. This was taught as a way Spanish differs from English, so my Spanish teacher, at least, would agree with you and Bashman that in English the plural is at least acceptable if not preferable.

  10. Bob Ladd said,

    June 29, 2008 @ 10:33 am

    Jamie added his comment while I was checking Google for other European languages, but that's exactly what I was going to say. My observation (borne out by my brief foray onto Google) is that in general English is a little weird in a European context. The other European languages I'm familiar strongly prefer the singular in distributed contexts, and have a clear tendency to get a pragmatically strange plural reading from the English-type construction (namely that each individual has more than one head, mouth, nose, etc.). I think Jamie's Spanish teacher was right.

  11. Jan Schreuder said,

    June 29, 2008 @ 11:21 am

    It seems that Enlgish is the odd man out once more. In my native language, Dutch, the distributed meaning is invariably rendered by the singular. "Zij verloren hun levens" (they lost their lives) sounds not just strange; it sounds ungrammatical. Unless we are talking about cats.

  12. Faith said,

    June 29, 2008 @ 11:57 am

    Yiddish also uses the singular in this case:
    "di shtroysn shtekn zeyer kop in zamd arayn" [די שטרויסן שטעקן זײער קאָפּ אין זאַמד אַרײַן] (rather than "zeyere kep") and I was taught by my linguist Yiddish professor that this was a way Yiddish differed from English. The same would hold true for all mmm's examples. The rule was, if each one has only one, use the singular. So you would indeed say "zeyer vayb" (their wife) which sounds very odd to an English speaker.

    It is just possible Judge Posner is labouring under the influence of Yiddish. He was born in New York in 1939, according to Wikipedia.

    This was a good opportunity for me to learn the Yiddish word for ostrich. I will spend the rest of my life waiting for an opportunity to work it into a Yiddish conversation.

  13. dr pepper said,

    June 29, 2008 @ 2:19 pm

    Is there no classic Borsht Belt routine involving ostriches?

  14. Neal Goldfarb said,

    June 29, 2008 @ 2:35 pm

    Mark: I'd like to introduce people to the idea that questions of usage can be addressed not only by consulting one's intuitions, but also by looking at evidence of a less individual, subjective and unreliable kind.

    That's one of the points that's made in the amicus brief that Roger posted about here. And the point is one that judges in particular need to be made aware of. Issues of usage and grammar come up in legal cases all the time, and the way the issue is resolved can determine whether or not someone goes to jail.

  15. Bunny Mellon said,

    June 29, 2008 @ 2:55 pm

    It's not a question of intuition, or the majority's usage. Judge Posner in his email says one head is logical, and logic is indeed the criterion to use in this case. But Posner's own logic is wrong. As Mark implies, it is illogical (not to mention silly) to assume that many ostriches would have only one ostrich head between them.

    Perhaps it would be clearer to Posner if he were to imagine one hydra rather than several ostriches: would a hydra bury its head in the sand? I think not, it would bury its heads.

  16. Bunny Mellon said,

    June 29, 2008 @ 3:09 pm

    And in case anybody's interested, in Norwegian, Struts begraver hode i sanden–only one head.

  17. Jason Eisner said,

    June 29, 2008 @ 3:35 pm

    But the real question posed by this post is whether Posner = Kibo.

  18. John Cowan said,

    June 29, 2008 @ 4:25 pm

    Shel Silverstein, who was undoubtedly influenced by Yiddish, solved the problem differently (using a collective singular) in his light verse "The Zumbies" (italics added):

    The ostrich is known to bury his head.
    The Zumby, so much more discreetly
    At the very first inkling of danger or dread
    Will bury himself most completely.

    If he catches the scent or the odor of Man,
    He envisions a horrible death,
    So he buries himself deep down into the sand,
    And sits there, just holding his breath.

    So the next time you're down to the beach at the strand,
    So sunny and splashy and gay,
    Remember, the Zumbies sit under the sand,
    Just waiting for you to go 'way.

  19. John Cowan said,

    June 29, 2008 @ 4:26 pm

    Well, they weren't added: I meant to emphasize "The ostrich" and "his head".

  20. Alexpri said,

    June 30, 2008 @ 12:08 am

    Given Judge Posner’s use of “canard” in a way that is fairly rare in English but common enough in French, I wondered he hadn’t been reading in French and influenced by the French preference for the distributed singular. That Spanish and Latin share this preference suggests that it is characteristic of Romance languages. But then other Germanic languages apparently share it as well. Is English exceptional in this respect among Germanic languages, then? If so, why might that be?

  21. Coby Lubliner said,

    June 30, 2008 @ 12:39 am

    The King James Version examples are clear evidence that the plural form has been normal in English for a long time, for in almost every case (not counting "bowed their heads" which translates vayiqqodu) the Hebrew has the singular rosham rather than the plural rasheyhem. Given the KJ translators penchant for literalism, this must have been a conscious decision on their part.

  22. Coby Lubliner said,

    June 30, 2008 @ 12:41 am

    Could somebody tell me how to get italics into a comment?

  23. Richard A. Posner said,

    June 30, 2008 @ 12:50 am

    I admit to being shaken, primarily by the awful thought of those poor ostriches sharing a single head among them. And here I was trying to enhance the ostriches' image. But seriously I don't think there's actually a rule, in English at any rate, or at least a simple either-or rule, to govern the choice between the singular and the plural. The choice depends on the mental picture that it evokes. That in turn depends on whether the subject of the sentence, though plural, is viewed aggregatively or distributively. The "virgins of Jerusalem hang down their heads" sounds fine, but so does "In prosperous days They swarm, but in adverse withdraw their head." The difference is that the vrgins are acting collectively, in unison; the swarmers are not–nor are the ostriches when they bury their heads. Each ostrich does that separately, individually. So the reader thinks of an individual ostrich, and he (or she) has one head. But the virgins are thought of as moving their heads in unison–a bunch of heads moving at once.

    [(myl): A response is here.]

  24. swg said,

    June 30, 2008 @ 1:57 am

    It's surprising to me that Judge Posner did not choose to write "AN ostrich when frightened buries ITS head." He must know that this sort of problem happens a lot, and that most of the time any confusion or inconsistency is easily curable by reverting to the singular.

  25. Arthur Crown said,

    June 30, 2008 @ 6:00 am

    Cory Lubliner said, 'could somebody tell me how to get italics into a comment?'

    Yes. Language Hat told me how to do it. Go to the Language Hat comments:

    Three quarters of the way down the comments he explained to me how to do bold, but italics is the same, you just substitute an 'i' for a 'b'.

  26. James Wimberley said,

    June 30, 2008 @ 6:34 am

    I'm upset that you don't consider Wyclif, Tyndale and the revisers of the King James Bible to be "professional writers."

  27. James Wimberley said,

    June 30, 2008 @ 6:45 am

    swg: I find Dave Raggett's guide to basic html very helpful. Here's a list of tags for IPA symbols. Test: ə (Numeric code & plus #601 plus ;). This blog accepts simple lists:Like this.And this.
    You probably shouldn't try anything more fancy in a comment.

  28. James Wimberley said,

    June 30, 2008 @ 6:49 am

    Sorry, the list of IPA tags is here.

  29. James Wimberley said,

    June 30, 2008 @ 6:53 am

    And the evil Language Log server killed my demo bulleted list after accepting it in preview. Talk about doubletalk.

  30. Arnold Zwicky said,

    June 30, 2008 @ 9:43 am

    Over on the suinoloP xilef blog, there's an entry praising this post of Mark's, but attributing it to me:

    I was unable to sign on to leave a comment on that blog, so I'm trying to correct things here.

  31. John Cowan said,

    June 30, 2008 @ 12:15 pm

    I have added the corrective comment.

  32. felix culpa said,

    June 30, 2008 @ 12:39 pm

    The regrettable error is amended. Thanks much.
    ’Tis indeed a lovely post, laden with delightful quotes and well-formed withal.
    Admiration and again, thanks.

  33. Coby Lubliner said,

    June 30, 2008 @ 1:34 pm

    When I wrote "almost" in my comment, I meant to point out that in the Isaiah quote the original has plural "heads" but a singular referent, i.e. "kol roshav" ("all his heads"), since Moab is construed as singular.

  34. Aaron Davies said,

    June 30, 2008 @ 11:52 pm

    Are there any languages (Lojban maybe?) which have specific constructs for indicating bijections between sets?

  35. Arthur Crown said,

    July 1, 2008 @ 12:09 am

    To Coby Lubliner,
    Since you still aren't using italics, I assume my link didn't work, so I've copied it from Language Hat's instruction:

    In HTML, you bold things by putting them between angle-bracketed b and /b, thus:

    Italics work the same way as bold, you just use an 'i' instead of a 'b' between the angle brackets.

  36. Joshua Tropper said,

    July 1, 2008 @ 12:06 pm

    I agree with Judge Posner that the problem is in the structure of the English language, but the focus on the choice between "head" and "heads" distracts from the true cause of the difficulty. Traditionally, the plural "their" has required the plural "heads," and if "their heads" seems peculiar in context, the simple solution is (as has been noted already) to change the plural "ostriches" to the singular "an ostrich" so that the plural "their" may be changed to the singular "its," resulting in "an ostrich buries its head," avoiding the potentially disturbing image of multi-headed ostriches.

    The more serious difficulty is the increasingly perceived need to use "their" when a singular form would work better. Judge Posner's sentence could have been cured by the use of "its," but only because of its struthious subject matter. Had the subject been human, merely changing the subject to the singular form would not have worked because we lack a nominative pronoun for a person whose sex is not known (as is the case of an unidentified or unspecified individual member of group containing members of both sexes). Those of us who went to school forty years ago or more were taught that the pronoun indicating indeterminate gender is the same as the masculine pronoun, and saw no difficulty. That usage has become unpopular in many circles, and many writers have retrained themselves to use "their" instead of "his," notwithstanding the inevitable conflict between the plural "their" and its singular antecedent.

    Eventually, either "their" will come to be accepted as singular in some contexts or a new personal pronoun of indeterminate gender will arise. Until then, we will enjoy discussing these anomalies.

  37. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    July 2, 2008 @ 7:33 pm

    It's interesting that Shakespeare uses "their heads" exclusively, but "their life" in at least one place (the prologue to Romeo and Juliet). I wonder if he drew a distinction? Did he perhaps envision the pair as indeed sharing a life (or imply such for poetic effect)?

    Also, unlike the various other languages mentioned here, Biblical Hebrew seems to have a fairly even split: rosham ("their head") and rosheihem ("their heads") each get exactly 19 Google hits on, and looking through them, all or nearly all are distributive (though not all are talking about anatomical heads). Of course, it's hard to tell from such a small corpus: only includes the Bible proper.

  38. Kristina said,

    July 4, 2008 @ 1:28 pm

    I could not agree more with Joshua Tropper's last comment. My English Composition students are avoiding singular possessive pronouns like the plague and losing all awareness of number distinction in the process. But that's another issue.

    Here is an interesting example from German, another closely related Germanic language, which mixes singular ("unseren Kopf") and plural ("ihre Köpfe") while trying to explain the expression in question. Interesting use of "ihr restlicher Körper" ("their remaining body") immediately following "their heads" in the second sentence:

    "Wenn wir sprichwörtlich unseren Kopf in den Sand stecken, […] Diese Vögel senken bei Gefahr ihre Köpfe sehr nah auf den Boden, damit ihr restlicher Körper für den Feind wie ein Busch aussieht. Die Europäer dachten aber, die Strauße würden ihre Köpfe tatsächlich in den Sand stecken, weil sie glaubten, dann nicht mehr gesehen zu werden."

    (translation: "When we literally stick our head into the sand, […] These birds, when in danger, lower their heads very close to the ground, so that their remaining body looks like a bush to the enemy. The Europeans however thought that ostriches would indeed stick their heads into the sand, because they believed, then they couldn't be seen anymore.")

    So, it all seems to be a big human misunderstanding anyways, this sticking of heads into the sand.

    A quick search of German Bible translations at reveals more singular (12) than plural heads (8, of which several seem to be referring to the heads of pillars, one to heads cut off, in which case plural certainly seems to capture the situation more fittingly). And thank goodness there are no references to individual female heads in the scriptures, since those look the same as plural heads in German ("ihren Kopf"), which makes general googling useless.

  39. Karen said,

    September 5, 2008 @ 8:07 pm

    So you like "he"? How about here: "When everyone heard the fire alarm, he ran out of the building"?

  40. rkillings said,

    September 7, 2008 @ 6:48 pm

    I came upon this thread because I had just been involved in similar discussion on a translators' list. An English-to-French translator asked for help on whether a plural in her text should be rendered in the distributive singular in French. I asked what the rule was in French, whether it was always so, and whether the early Christians in Ephesus were not monogamous (because in the Douai Bible, Paul tells them, "C'est ainsi que les maris doivent aimer leur femmes comme leurs propres corps" [KJV: So ought men to love their wives as their own bodies]. What emerged is that the francophone participants had been taught to regard this use of the plural as a mistake, yet one posted an excerpt from a dictionary of French usage by Hanse concluding that both singular and plural usages have been around for centuries. Perhaps the distributive singular is not so firmly ensconced in those 'continental' languages as their speakers commonly believe.

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