Saturday, January 14, 2006

Six Persons Are A Group Of People

I don't mean to come off as a Grammar Nazi (or the Usage Police), but here's another abuse of the language that has been bothering me of late: persons vs. people.

When talking about a specific number of individuals, we use the plural of person. For example:

one person, five persons

This should look familiar. It is the normal use of the plural in the English language.

However, English (like many other languages) has a strange word that, although singular, refers to a plural entity. In the case of Italian, the word is gente. In the case of English, it is people.

They were a proud people.

In this case, people means a collection of individuals which are being grouped together because of some common characteristic. It behaves like a normal word with a plural form too.

The various European peoples prepared for the change.

But, people can also be used in different way. It can also refer to a collection of individuals. Isn't this persons' job? In this second, always plural, usage of the word people, it refers to an unspecified number of individuals.

I saw six persons standing by the road.
I saw a group of people standing by the road.

Most of you will correctly note that the above usage seems almost awkward. That's becuase, in modern usage, people has almost completely taken over this function from persons- except in the legal field.

This is fine. It's natural for a language to undergo change. It's also nice to remind ourselves of where we've been linguistically and what is technically correct. That way our usage decisions will be concious and not accidental.

Here's the nit. It seems that some people have gotten wind of this usage of persons in legalese and, in an effort to sound as pompous and officious as possible, have begun using persons to refer to an unspecified number of people. On the same day, I'll see "official" signs using both words in the same way.

What can I do but sigh? It might be annoying, but it's still not as bad as what these same people have done to 'I' and 'me'. That, however, is fodder for another post.
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