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Of people and persons

Of people and persons

November 11, 2021 By Andy Hollandbeck Resources

The word person, which, when you focus on its plurals, presents a few unusual considerations.

These days, the standard plural of person is people. Native English speakers might not even realize, in the larger scheme of things, how odd this is. Person and people don’t even have a common etymology! Person stems from the Latin persona, which originally referred to an actor’s mask, then to a character in a play, and then eventually to an individual outside of a play. People, on the other hand, comes from the Latin populus, a collective noun that referred to the people as a single mass.

Persons was the original regular plural of person, but even as far back as Chaucer, writers were using people to refer to multiple individuals of any number. And people — as well as persons — seemed to be just fine with that.

But then Victorian writers and grammarians noticed the “problem” and started making “rules.” Well into the first decades of the 20th century, usage guides urged writers to reserve people to refer to an uncountable or indefinite number of individuals, and persons to refer to specific, countable individuals. So, for example, “Millions of people voted for Gritty for Senate” but “The ten persons on the team each received customized toenail clippers.”

That guidance has largely disappeared today. Persons is out and people is in except in some legal contexts, in certain set phrases (like “Bureau of Missing Persons”), and when quoting older text. Person is also used sometimes to refer to one’s body, usually in stilted impromptu announcements from law enforcement: “We confiscated a tactical lip gloss which he had on his person.” This person, too, can be made plural simply by adding an s, but if avoiding such a construction altogether is possible, maybe you should consider that instead.

Adding to the unusual nature of these words is the fact that people, a plural, can itself have another plural. People can still be used as a mass noun — to refer to a race or nation as a whole. It is singular in form but plural in construction, and it can be pluralized as peoples to refer to more than one race or nation, though you don’t see it very often: “The people of France wanted a wheel of brie, but the remaining peoples of the European Union voted to put a circle of stars on its flag.”

When it comes to pluralizing person, your editorial intuition will probably lead you in the right direction. Some of your editing clients, however, might find themselves falling down this particular rabbit hole, especially if they’ve gotten their hands on the wrong usage guide. Just remember to let modern usage, not etymology or some Victorian snoot, be your standard.

This article was originally posted to Copyediting.com on 11/7/18.

Header photo by Allie on Unsplash.

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