English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

I was disappointed to see a favorite storybook from my childhood has been edited. (Harry, the Dirty Dog; ISBN-13: 978-0064430098) I distinctly remember the text written as follows:

...but everyone shook his head and said, "Oh, no, it couldn't be Harry."

I was taught that the male gender form takes precedence, when speaking several individuals of each gender. However, the book was edited to read,

...but everyone shook his head their head and said, "Oh, no, it couldn't be Harry."

ARGH! Please assure me that the original version and I are correct! There are some other minor edits that have simply ruined the book for me. (My linguistic snobbery helped, too.)

share|improve this question
I like the Coe college discussion on sexist language which includes this point. – user7136 Apr 8 '11 at 20:23
I move to add a "Policital-Correctness" tag! This certainly falls dead in the sights. – Mike Christian Jun 29 '11 at 16:35
up vote 3 down vote accepted

I believe the edited version is incorrect.
It should be "but everyone shook their head" (singular head, for each individual. Unless you're dealing with a hydra :P)

The male dominance in pluralisation that you mentioned is still correct, but is avoided to not offend feminists, and will likely be phased out for the same reason.

share|improve this answer
I disagree that there is anything "incorrect" about the edited version. Language is how it is used, not how some logician abstractly thinks about it. – Colin Fine Apr 8 '11 at 14:38
JORDAAN: Please note I corrected the pluralization error. – Mike Christian Apr 8 '11 at 20:40
The edited version uses thier not his, as a matter of fact, which contradicts with your answer. – Noah Aug 19 '12 at 3:16

Better to recast the sentence.

The audience found their seats.

share|improve this answer

Everyone shook his head? That might result into a headache. Everyone shook their heads is correct.

share|improve this answer
There is a decent distinction being made here but my guess is that the downvote came from confusion about what, exactly, you were trying to point out. – MrHen Apr 11 '11 at 15:25
Just for clarification, "Everyone shook his head". That means that everyone shook his head. – alexy13 Apr 11 '11 at 18:53
<Wah wah wahhhh> The trump of irony sounds! – Mike Christian Jun 29 '11 at 16:33

Most correct English is "shook his or her head". "Their" is increasingly accepted as a singular possessive gender-neutral pronoun, but it is not universally accepted as such.

share|improve this answer
I downvoted your answer because of your undue assertiveness that his or her is "most correct", and your characterization of their as "increasingly accepted", which it is not -- their has been accepted as the singular possessive pronoun since at least Shakespeare and the Bible. If you edit your answer, I'll gladly remove my downvote. – Uticensis Apr 9 '11 at 3:30
Whether or not it's a 'myth', and whether or not it was accepted more in the distant past has no bearing on it being more accepted today that it was 20 years ago. If people -- including language authorities based on some of the outdated works I have on my shelf -- have believed it in recent past and now, today, people are increasingly arguing it's a myth, well, it's increasingly accepted, isn't it? Additionally, I would argue that works as old as Shakespeare or translations such as the Bible are poor sources for proper usage of English. Downvote if you like, my arguments stand. – Bacon Bits Apr 9 '11 at 21:51
You haven't actually argued anything. -1 for the same reasons as @Billare. – MrHen Apr 11 '11 at 15:24
Oh, noes! Call the political correctness police! – Mike Christian Jun 29 '11 at 16:34
I have been using the singular 'their' since the 1960s, and I got the habit from other people. Grammar teachers were unable to beat it out of me. I assume it has been used continuously by (at least some) English speakers for the last 500 years, much longer than the word ain't. – Peter Shor Sep 12 '12 at 4:03

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.