Person/Persons/People

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omgryebread
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Person/Persons/People

Postby omgryebread » Tue Oct 16, 2012 10:10 pm UTC

So... what's the correct usage of these words? I've heard people hate on "persons" since they say "people" is the correct pluralization, but people is also a singular word for a group of persons, as in "some armed groups seek an independent state for the Karen people."
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Re: Person/Persons/People

Postby Derek » Tue Oct 16, 2012 10:59 pm UTC

"People" has (at least) two meanings: One as the plural of "person", and another as a singular referring to a collective group of people (ex, "the Karen people").

"Persons" is also correct in some situations, though "people" is far more common. An example of "persons" I can think of off the top of my head when referring to someone's body, such as "He has a gun on his person", in which case the plural would be "they are carrying guns on their persons".

tl;dr: English Language is confusing.

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Re: Person/Persons/People

Postby dudiobugtron » Wed Oct 17, 2012 1:45 am UTC

'Persons' would also be used if 'person' had a specific technical meaning. For example: "Corporations are considered legal persons."

I think there are also situations where it's OK to use 'persons' in places where 'people' would also be acceptable. eg:
"Persons under the age of 5 must be accompanied by an adult."
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Re: Person/Persons/People

Postby ThirdParty » Fri Oct 19, 2012 5:18 am UTC

My take: "Persons" is the correct plural of all senses of the word "person". "People" refers to a group of persons, functioning as a collective entity or as an uncounted mass.

So:
  • "Our two peoples are so different that any peace between us can be only temporary."
  • "All peoples have a right to self-governance."
  • "My people have a ritual which we like to perform in this situation."
  • "The people of Greece have spoken and their will must be obeyed."
  • "Corporations are not malevolent machines; each is just people, working together on a shared project." [1]
  • "The room was packed so full of people that one could barely turn around."
  • "I'm sick and tired of people trampling my grass."
  • "Four people were walking along the street together, on their way to a restaurant, when the accident occurred." [2]
  • "Four persons were walking along the street, in various directions, when the accident occurred." [3]
  • "This lifeboat can accommodate up to twelve persons." [4]
  • "Most Christians believe that God is three persons." [5]
  • "Corporations are legal persons; each has the same rights as an individual."
  • "We feared for the safety of our persons."
  • "No drugs were found upon any of the suspects' persons."
Notes:
  1. It turns out that if running for office in a country where English is spoken imprecisely, it is inadvisable to gloss this sentence as "corporations are people", since you may be misinterpreted as meaning "corporations are persons" instead.
  2. Note that this is arguably ungrammatical due to number disagreement between "four" and "people". In formal contexts you should write "A group of four persons ..." instead. But in informal contexts this has become perfectly normal usage; if you attach a number greater than one to the singular noun "people", everyone will understand that you're counting the people's members. Compare with a sentence such as "The collapse of the church ceiling killed the entire congregation--all forty of them": it's not perfect English, but it's well within the scope of what we're willing to overlook in off-the-cuff speaking.
  3. Of course, if the main reason we're interested in the persons is that they collectively comprise the set of witnesses to the accident, it might make sense to say "Four people ...", at least if speaking informally. "Four persons ..." may even come across as stilted or legalistic, or as emphasizing the count or the definition of "person" for some reason: e.g. "I'm certain that four persons witnessed the accident, even though only three have come forward" or "Only four persons witnessed the accident, but Koko the gorilla was also present, and the event was recorded by a security camera."
  4. So if there were thirty people (which is to say, a group of thirty persons) on the boat when it sank, we can plausibly blame them for its sinking; they were too numerous. Note that numerousness is a property held by people collectively, not by individual persons.
  5. You absolutely cannot say "... three people" here, since that would make God sound like a collectivity rather than an individual, which is not what most Christians believe. Contrast with "Over a quarter of Americans know that the U.S. Senate is one hundred people", which is correct modulo its ungrammaticality.
-----

We're indeed gradually evolving toward the situation Derek and dudiobugtron have described as already existing, in which "people" will become the plural of the agential sense of "person", while "persons" will remain the plural of the corporeal sense of "person" ("There were over five hundred people in the refugee camp" vs. "The refugees possessed only what they had been able to carry on their persons"). The associational and characterological senses of "person" are going to go with the agential sense, while the legal and other technical senses are going to stay with the corporeal sense ("Cat people should not marry dog people" vs. "Corporate persons are not allowed to marry"). "People", used as a singular noun whose plural is "peoples", will have to be regarded as a distinct lexical entry from the plural noun.

Like most modern changes to English grammar, this is a regression toward the mean: English is one of the richest and most expressive languages on the planet, and this makes it slightly less so. But I find it hard to get worked up about this particular change; most of the ambiguities it creates can be easily resolved by the addition of clarificatory words such as "together", it doesn't make old texts much harder to understand since "persons" is a regular plural of obvious meaning, and it may actually make the language easier to manipulate algorithmically.

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Re: Person/Persons/People

Postby goofy » Sat Oct 20, 2012 4:56 pm UTC

ThirdParty wrote:My take: "Persons" is the correct plural of all senses of the word "person".


Really? I don't think you'll find many modern usage commentators who will agree with you. There was a dispute about this in the early 1900s, but I think most people today agree that people is a plural of person, although persons is also possible. People has been used as a plural of person for about 700 years.

ThirdParty wrote:English is one of the richest and most expressive languages on the planet


Citation needed. Anyway, I don't see how this usage makes English less expressive.

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Re: Person/Persons/People

Postby steewi » Sun Oct 21, 2012 2:00 am UTC

From a strictly functionalist perspective, "persons" is used in a formal business/government/media register to refer to discrete individuals. In a different register (e.g. casual speech, high society, etc.), "people" is used way more frequently. It's still restricted though. As far as I can tell, it's pretty much only used to enumerate a small(?) number of people. You can say "I saw three persons exiting the store", but you can't say "Persons like doing things like that". "I saw hundreds of/lots of/two hundred persons exiting the store" is questionable to me. It's OK, but it doesn't sound quite right, which is why I qualify it as "a small number of people".

Why? For some reason it sounds more business-like to use the regular plural (the same reason people want to use "octopi" as the plural for "octopus" and use "whom" as a relativiser, regardless of whether it's a subject or object). It's marked as "official-sounding" in people's mental lexicon.

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Re: Person/Persons/People

Postby ThirdParty » Sun Oct 21, 2012 5:25 am UTC

Perhaps analogy could be helpful here. I propose that "people" is to "persons" almost exactly as "cattle" is to "cows". It's also not terribly dissimilar to how "clientele" is to "clients", and has at least some things in common with how "machinery" is to "machines". (And there are lots of words which follow the "machinery"-"machines" pattern: "jewelry"-"jewels", "statuary"-"statues", etc.)
goofy wrote:People has been used as a plural of person for about 700 years.
Could you point to some examples? The 1913 Webster's Unabridged Dictionary doesn't even mention the word "people" in its entry for "person", which seems to suggest that the confusion between "people" and "persons" is fairly recent.
goofy wrote:I don't see how this usage makes English less expressive.
Removing words from a language, or merging their meanings with one another, rarely makes the language more expressive.

Compare "the people at the meeting were very competent" with "the persons at the meeting were very competent". These do not mean at all the same thing. Conversational implicature gives "... but they did not work well together" for free in the second one, without actually having to take the time to say (or risk getting in trouble for saying) it overtly.
steewi wrote:"I saw hundreds of/lots of/two hundred persons exiting the store" is questionable to me. It's OK, but it doesn't sound quite right
It's not a matter of which one "sounds quite right". "I saw two hundred people exiting the store" means that you estimated their number to be about two hundred; "I saw two hundred persons exiting the store" means that you actually counted them, one by one. (As you yourself said, "persons" refers to discrete individuals.) Which is okay and which is wrong depends on which is true.
steewi wrote:For some reason it sounds more business-like to use the regular plural (the same reason people want to use "octopi" as the plural for "octopus" and use "whom" as a relativiser, regardless of whether it's a subject or object)
I'm not sure I'd call it the same reason. Avoiding a sloppy popular innovation, in favor of more precise but somewhat old-fashioned usage, is hardly the same thing as trying to sound smarter than one in fact is.

But I do agree with your basic claim that "persons" is used much more widely in the formal register than in the informal one.

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Re: Person/Persons/People

Postby gmalivuk » Sun Oct 21, 2012 6:09 am UTC

ThirdParty wrote:Perhaps analogy could be helpful here. I propose that "people" is to "persons" almost exactly as "cattle" is to "cows".
Could be, but that doesn't change the fact that, in informal conversation, "people" is the plural of "person", with both "peoples" and "persons" being much more restricted in use.

Whether you think something different would make more sense or "should" be the case is irrelevant.

The 1913 Webster's Unabridged Dictionary doesn't even mention the word "people" in its entry for "person", which seems to suggest that the confusion between "people" and "persons" is fairly recent.
While I wouldn't go so far as to call it a confusion, it is true that "persons" has been on the decline for about the past 200 years, suggesting that there has in fact been a recent-ish change in its use.
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Re: Person/Persons/People

Postby Derek » Sun Oct 21, 2012 9:20 am UTC

gmalivuk wrote:
ThirdParty wrote:Perhaps analogy could be helpful here. I propose that "people" is to "persons" almost exactly as "cattle" is to "cows".
Could be, but that doesn't change the fact that, in informal conversation, "people" is the plural of "person", with both "peoples" and "persons" being much more restricted in use.

Whether you think something different would make more sense or "should" be the case is irrelevant.

The 1913 Webster's Unabridged Dictionary doesn't even mention the word "people" in its entry for "person", which seems to suggest that the confusion between "people" and "persons" is fairly recent.
While I wouldn't go so far as to call it a confusion, it is true that "persons" has been on the decline for about the past 200 years, suggesting that there has in fact been a recent-ish change in its use.

Adding "person" and "people" to that graprh shows that there was a general decline of "person" and related words in the 19th century. Then in the 20th century "people" and "person" became more common while "persons" continued to decline.

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Re: Person/Persons/People

Postby goofy » Sun Oct 21, 2012 3:16 pm UTC

ThirdParty wrote:
goofy wrote:People has been used as a plural of person for about 700 years.
Could you point to some examples? The 1913 Webster's Unabridged Dictionary doesn't even mention the word "people" in its entry for "person", which seems to suggest that the confusion between "people" and "persons" is fairly recent.


According to Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, a bunch of dictionaries (the OED, Webster 1909, the Century, and Funk & Wagnalls) all missed the use of people with a preceding number, which is perhaps why there was so much dispute about the issue in the early 1900s. However, it is found in Chaucer:

But right anon a thousand peple in thraste,
"But right away a thousand people burst in," (Physician's Tale)


Dickens:

This lunatic, in letting Scrooge’s nephew out, had let two other people in. (A Christmas Carol)


H G Wells:

One or two people had gone down the lane (Love and Mr. Lewisham)


Defoe:

and the little alarm that was given in December by two people dying at St Giles's, as above (A Journal of the Plague Year)


ThirdParty wrote:Removing words from a language, or merging their meanings with one another, rarely makes the language more expressive.


It seems impossible to tell if removing a word from a language changes the overall expressive power of the language at all. Languages are losing words all the time, and there's no evidence that one language spoken at a certain time was more or less expressive than another language or the same language at a different point in time.

ThirdParty wrote:Compare "the people at the meeting were very competent" with "the persons at the meeting were very competent". These do not mean at all the same thing. Conversational implicature gives "... but they did not work well together" for free in the second one, without actually having to take the time to say (or risk getting in trouble for saying) it overtly.


I don't agree. I don't see the difference. But even if there was a difference, there is no loss of expressiveness if the word persons disappears. English can still express "... but they did not work well together".

ThirdParty wrote:
steewi wrote:"I saw hundreds of/lots of/two hundred persons exiting the store" is questionable to me. It's OK, but it doesn't sound quite right
It's not a matter of which one "sounds quite right". "I saw two hundred people exiting the store" means that you estimated their number to be about two hundred; "I saw two hundred persons exiting the store" means that you actually counted them, one by one.


That seems like a very strange distinction to me.

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Re: Person/Persons/People

Postby ThirdParty » Mon Oct 22, 2012 2:13 am UTC

Thanks, goofy, those examples are helpful. I think they satisfactorily establish that "people" has long been able to function as a plural noun. I withdraw my claim that constructions such as "Four people were walking along the street together" are at all dubious.

However, I'm not yet satisfied that these examples establish "people" to be a plural of "person", since all of them do seem to involve people functioning collectively rather than as individuals. They don't look like counterexamples to, say, the American Heritage Dictionary's entry for "people", whose relevant portions are:
peo·ple
NOUN
pl. people

1. Humans considered as a group or in indefinite numbers
...
Usage Note:
... when used to mean "humans," people is plural and has no corresponding singular form. English is not unique in this respect; Spanish, Italian, Russian, and many other languages have a plural word meaning "people" that has no singular. Some grammarians have insisted that people is a collective noun that should not be used as a substitute for persons when referring to a specific number of individuals. By this thinking, it is correct to say Six persons were arrested, not Six people were arrested. But people has always been used in such contexts, and almost no one makes the distinction anymore. Persons is still preferred in legal contexts, however ...
(My bold.) The AHD does not list "people" as a plural of "person" on either of the entries. Most other dictionaries I checked do. Do you have any examples that would shed light on that disagreement?

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Re: Person/Persons/People

Postby goofy » Mon Oct 22, 2012 3:05 am UTC

I confess I don't quite understand the AHD usage note. Of course people has a singular form: person. What exactly do they mean by "corresponding"? Maybe they mean people has no etymological singular form?

ThirdParty wrote:However, I'm not yet satisfied that these examples establish "people" to be a plural of "person", since all of them do seem to involve people functioning collectively rather than as individuals.

How do you know that the examples I gave involve "people functioning collectively rather than as individuals"? And why is that even relevant? I just don't believe you when you say that people must only refer "to a group of persons, functioning as a collective entity or as an uncounted mass."


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