To “shoot oneself in the foot” is to do something harmful to oneself by accident. How should this phrase be worded to apply to several people?

  • This is provided to stop people from shooting themselves in the foot.
  • This is provided to stop people from shooting themselves in the feet.

The people don’t all share a single foot; on the other hand, using feet just doesn’t seem right.

Are there parallel examples?

  • You could be (somewhat) humorous and say "This is provided to stop people from shooting themselves in their respective feet". – JeffSahol Aug 9 '13 at 19:42
  • @JeffSahol, or . . . "their collective feet" works for me too. – Kristina Lopez Aug 9 '13 at 22:08

Your inclination that shooting themselves in the feet seems strange is borne out by this ngram. It exists, but very rarely compared with the alternative.

It seems that shooting oneself in the foot is such an idiom that it does not lend itself to pluralization, especially since when talking about one person it is virtually always singular, and pluralization might confuse.

By contrast, the concept of getting something into one's head, when referring to multiple people does seem to prefer the plural, getting it into their heads as shown in this ngram.

This might be explained by the fact that each person only has one head, and no confusion is likely.

But the phrase hit themselves in the head seems to only take the singular, as shown here.

When discussing raising their hands to vote (which is done with only one hand each), the plural seems to be always used, as shown in this ngram, even though it might be misinterpreted to mean two hands up (as in I surrender).

If there is a consistent pattern, it seems that when an article is used before the body part, the singular prevails, even among multiple actors. When a possessive determiner or reflexive pronoun is used, the plural usually takes over.

  • I'm inclined to disagree. The examples you provide are quite differently, grammatically. If the idiom were "I shot them in their feet" (as it is in the others, with "their heads" and "their hands"), then the plural is clearly favorable. Similarly, something with the structure of the first idiom, like "they hit themselves in their head", should be singular. – DarkLightA Aug 9 '13 at 20:07
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    @DarkLightA See added analysis prompted by (but not necessarily agreeing with) your comment. – bib Aug 9 '13 at 20:24

I think that from a grammatical standpoint, both are correct, but I very much doubt there is a single person on earth who would deliberately shoot her second foot having experienced the pain of killing the first one.

That's why people say "they are shooting themselves in the foot" and not "they are shooting themselves in the feet"

Also, you can check on google that there are almost 2 million occurrences of "they are shooting themselves in the foot" and around 40000 for "they are shooting themselves in the feet".

  • Your first paragraph misses the point: he shot himself in the feet would be grammatical but is hardly ever used, for the reason you identify. This does not help with they shot themselves in the foot/feet. (Normally I would downvote, but your last para is valuable since it provides evidence.) – Tim Lymington Aug 9 '13 at 21:47

It should be 'feet' if you are using correct grammar.

Because 'shoot their foot' is not correct grammar.

'Shoot their feet' is correct because 'themselves' is plural.

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    The phrase 'shoot their foot' is correct grammatically, but doesn't mean what I want it to mean. It would be correct if, for example, the people in question all shared a single foot. – CSJ Aug 10 '13 at 13:03
  • That should not be so. It is obvious that a group of people cannot share a single foot. We don't have to question if this is the case. When assumptions are made, the assumption is usually that which is most likely to be the meaning, and it is not assumed that we are talking about the rare occurrence. For everyone to share one foot would be to assume a very rare occurrence. Therefore instead of assuming the rare thing, we should instead assume the likely thing, that there is more than one foot, and thus, more likely there will be feet and not a singular foot that belongs to a group of people. – Julie Aug 11 '13 at 10:59
  • Agreed on all counts -- except for the incorrect grammar bit. I think you were going for incorrect semantics. – CSJ Aug 12 '13 at 11:13

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