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People vs. Persons
The noun person has two plurals: persons and people. Most people don’t use persons, but the sticklers say there
are times when we should. “When we say
persons,” says Wilson Follett’s Modern American Usage, “we are thinking,
or ought to be, of ones—individuals with identities; whereas when we say people we should mean a large group, an indefinite and
The traditional rule is that persons is used for either an exact or a small number. So we might estimate that a hundred people were
there. Or if we know the exact number, we’d say ninety-eight persons were there.
As for “a small number,” how small is “small”? In Words on Words, John B. Bremner suggests fewer than fifty.
Theodore M. Bernstein concurs, saying in The Careful Writer that fifty people is acceptable. To Bernstein, two people is nearly
unthinkable but 4,381 persons is “quite proper.”
Meanwhile, the language moves on. In A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, Bryan A. Garner calls the persons-people distinction
“pedantic.” Garner says that twelve persons on the jury “sounds stuffy” and that most Americans today would say people instead. Roy H. Copperud agrees. In A Dictionary of Usage and Style he dismisses the grammatical superiority of persons
as “superstition,” a law that “usage has in fact repealed.”
Because persons sounds aloof and clinical, the word still thrives in legal, official, or formal usage. A hotel chain’s website offers
“options for three and more persons.” Elevators carry signs saying, “Occupancy by more than eight persons is unlawful.” The
Department of Justice has a database called the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System.
A more timely debate these days would be people vs. folks. Traditionalists regard folks with suspicion and contempt. Bernstein
says, “Folks is a casualism … not suitable for general straightforward writing.” Bremner calls it “deliberately
folksy” and “corny in formal speech and writing.” But judging by its growing popularity and acceptance in this informal age, folks will probably be synonymous with people in another ten years.
Because of the e-newsletter’s large readership, please submit your English usage questions through GrammarBook.com’s “Grammar Blog.”
This is a photo of a real menu we encountered during a recent road trip. Can you guess how many side dishes you get to choose to accompany your main breakfast entrée?
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Our crazy English language.
1) When shot at, the dove dove into the bushes.
2) I did not object to the object.
3) The insurance was invalid for the invalid.
4) There was a row among the oarsmen about how to row.
Pop Quiz Answers
You would have to be lucky to guess the correct answer. Since we ate there, we know (only because we had to ask the waiter) that you have two choices: the Famous Lyonnaise Potatoes or the french fries, and then either tomato slices or toast. Better wording could be: "Served with your choice of our Famous Lyonnaise Potatoes or french fries, along with tomato slices or toast."
By the way, the food was very good.
Learn all about who and whom, affect and effect, subjects and verbs, adjectives and adverbs, commas, semicolons, quotation marks, and much more by just sitting back and enjoying these easy-to-follow lessons. Tell your colleagues (and boss), children, teachers, and friends. Click here to watch.