The Grammarphobia Blog

People oriented

Q: The recent Supreme Court decision about the Second Amendment, which guarantees “the right of the people to keep and bear arms,” seems to hinge on the word “people.” It’s my understanding that “people” was once a singular noun, and the plural of “person” was “persons.” If “people” is singular, doesn’t this suggest that the right is guaranteed to the people as a group – i.e., militias – rather than to individuals? Of course, that’s not how the case was decided.

A: I’ll let the legal scholars and law reviews reargue District of Columbia v. Heller. As for “people” versus “person,” I don’t believe the etymological history supports your argument.

Although some language authorities have declared that the plural of “person” must be “persons,” not “people,” the people who actually speak the language have been doing otherwise for hundreds of years.

English speakers have used “people” as well as “persons” for the plural of “person” since at least the 1300s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. In The Canterbury Tales, for instance, Chaucer writes of “a thousand peple in thraste to save the knyght.”

In the past, “people” was sometimes used in a general sense and “persons” in a specific sense (that is, to emphasize individuality). Nowadays, though, most people use “people” in all cases.

Bryan A. Garner, in Garner’s Modern American Usage, says this general-versus-specific distinction “is now a pedantic one,” and the use of “people” for more than one person is “the more natural phrasing.”

As for your question, using “people” as the plural of “person” was perfectly acceptable English when the Second Amendment to the Constitution was adopted in 1791.

It wasn’t until the mid-19th century that some language pundits began questioning the use of “people” as a plural for “person,” according to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage.

The first known complaint came in 1861 when Henry Alford, a clergyman and grammarian, reported receiving a letter from someone who insisted that the expression “several people” should be “several persons.”

Alford, who’s chiefly responsible for the myth that it’s wrong to “split” an infinitive, didn’t buy this one. But many other so-called language authorities did. By the early 20th century, newspapers were adopting all sorts of rules for when “people” could or could not be used as a plural for “persons.”

When I worked for the New York Times in the 1980s and ‘90s, for example, the newspaper permitted the use of “people” for round numbers (“one million people”), but insisted on “persons” for precise numbers (“1,316 persons”).

By the end of the 20th century, though, the Times (as well as most other newspapers) had accepted “people” as the standard plural for “person” – no ifs, ands, or buts.

Needless to say, the people were merrily using “people” all along.

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