September 22, 2005

Counting people

Geoff Pullum's exegesis of yesterday's cartoon referred to one of William Strunk Jr.'s irrational little prejudices:

The word people is not to be used with words of number, in place of persons. If of "six people" five went away, how many "people" would be left? [The Elements of Style, 1918]

That might be the most illogical argument I've ever encountered. Since Prof. Strunk died before I was born, it's only in imagination that I can answer: "One, you pompous old crank. Another glass of sherry?"

E.B. White's fever-dream description of William Strunk Jr., from the introduction to the 1979 edition of their parvum opus, suggests that some form of sedation was in order:

From every line there peers out at me the puckish face of my professor, his short hair parted neatly in the middle and combed down over his forehead, his eyes blinking incessantly behind steel-rimmed spectacles as though he had just emerged into strong light, his lips nibbling each other like nervous horses, his smile shuttling to and fro under a carefully edged mustache.

"Omit needless words!" cries the author on page 23, and into that imperative Will Strunk really put his heart and soul. In the days when I was sitting in his class, he omitted so many needless words, and omitted them so forcibly and with such eagerness and obvious relish, that he often seemed in the position of having shortchanged himself — a man left with nothing more to say yet with time to fill, a radio prophet who had out-distanced the clock. Will Strunk got out of this predicament by a simple trick: he uttered every sentence three times. When he delivered his oration on brevity to the class, he leaned forward over his desk, grasped his coat lapels in his hands, and, in a husky, conspiratorial voice, said, "Rule Seventeen. Omit needless words! Omit needless words! Omit needless words!"

This is a scene scripted by Lewis Carroll in one of his darker moods. I've given some other samples of Elwyn Brooks White's psychedelic punditry in a post last February on The Wild Flag, a 1946 collection of his editorials on "Federal World Government".

Anyhow, I don't know whether Strunk invented the idea that people can't be a plural count noun, or inherited it from some earlier usage crank. Ken Wilson in the 1993 Columbia Guide to Standard American English (link) talks about "a fair-sized history":

There is a fair-sized history of complaint about the use of people as a plural with specific numbers, and some older conservatives still don’t like the practice. But both seven people and seven persons are Standard, with people getting a good deal more use than persons. Any difference is stylistic; to some people, persons may seem a bit more formal.

This way of putting it suggests that persons is the old-fashioned choice, with people (as a plural count noun) a modern innovation. But The American Heritage Guide to English Usage (link) obseves that

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 you should say Six persons (not people) were arrested during the protest.

But people has always been used in such contexts, and almost no one bothers with the distinction any more. Persons is still preferred in legal contexts, however, as in Vehicles containing fewer than three persons may not use the left lane during rush hours.

And indeed people was a plural count noun in English for centuries before Will Strunk's birth. I couldn't find any examples where Shakespeare happens to use people with a specific number, but he often uses it as a plural count noun, for example:

King Lear, Act II, Scene 2:

I dare auouch it Sir, what fifty Followers?
Is it not well? What should you need of more?
Yea, or so many? Sith that both charge and danger,
Speake 'gainst so great a number? How in one house
Should many people, vnder two commands
Hold amity? 'Tis hard, almost impossible.

For people with a specific number, we can turn to John Taylor's pre-1630 poem Taylors Water-worke (Or, the scullers travels, from Tyber to Thames):

111      In Henries Raigne and Maries (cruell Queene)
112      Eight thousand people there hath slaughtered beene,
113      Some by the Sword, some Hang'd, some burnt in fire,
114      Some staru'd to death in Prison, all expire.
115      Twelue thousand and seuen hundred more beside,
116      Much persecuting trouble did abide.

Nothing seems to have changed people-wise in the century and a half leading to Richard Brinsley Sheridan's The Critic (1779), Act III:

BEEFEATER. "Perdition catch my soul, but I do love thee."
SNEER. Haven't I heard that line before?
PUFF. No, I fancy not---Where pray?
DANGLE. Yes, I think there is something like it in Othello.
PUFF. Gad! now you put me in mind on't, I believe there is---but that's of no consequence---all that can be said is, that two people happened to hit on the same thought---And Shakespeare made use of it first, that's all.

And of course Jane Austen can be counted on to hit Strunk square in the nose. Here's Emma, chapter 8:

Waiving that point, however, and supposing her to be, as you describe her, only pretty and good-natured, let me tell you, that in the degree she possesses them, they are not trivial recommendations to the world in general, for she is, in fact, a beautiful girl, and must be thought so by ninety-nine people out of an hundred; and till it appears that men are much more philosophic on the subject of beauty than they are generally supposed; till they do fall in love with well-informed minds instead of handsome faces, a girl, with such loveliness as Harriet, has a certainty of being admired and sought after, of having the power of chusing from among many, consequently a claim to be nice.

So, Professor Strunk, if of "100 people" 99 went away, how many "people" would be left?

For an example from a different sort of adventure story, here's Sir Walter Scott's Redgauntlet (1824), chapter 4:

There seemed to be at least five or six people about the cart, some on foot, others on horseback; the former lent assistance whenever it was in danger of upsetting, or sticking fast in the quicksand; the others rode before and acted as guides, often changing the direction of the vehicle as the precarious state of the passage required.

And here's Charles Darwin, Journal of Researches into the Natural History and Geology of the countries visited during the voyage round the world of H.M.S. Beagle, chapter 16:

At Ica forty-two people thus miserably perished.

Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi, chapter 45:

If you add six ladies to the company, you have added six people who saw so little of the dread realities of the war that they ran out of talk concerning them years ago, and now would soon weary of the war topic if you brought it up.

Agatha Christie, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, chapter 8:

From your account, there are only two people whom we can positively say did not go near the coffee—Mrs. Cavendish, and Mademoiselle Cynthia.

And Emily Post, Etiquette (1922):

There are certain words which have been singled out and misused by the undiscriminating until their value is destroyed. Long ago “elegant” was turned from a word denoting the essence of refinement and beauty, into gaudy trumpery. “Refined” is on the verge. But the pariah of the language is culture! A word rarely used by those who truly possess it, but so constantly misused by those who understand nothing of its meaning, that it is becoming a synonym for vulgarity and imitation. To speak of the proper use of a finger bowl or the ability to introduce two people without a blunder as being “evidence of culture of the highest degree” is precisely as though evidence of highest education were claimed for who ever can do sums in addition, and read words of one syllable.

While we're speaking with Ms. Post, I can't resist pasting in the start of the passage quoted above:

It is difficult to explain why well-bred people avoid certain words and expressions that are admitted by etymology and grammar. So it must be merely stated that they have and undoubtedly always will avoid them. Moreover, this choice of expression is not set forth in any printed guide or book on English, though it is followed in all literature.

To liken Best Society to a fraternity, with the avoidance of certain seemingly unimportant words as the sign of recognition, is not a fantastic simile. People of the fashionable world invariably use certain expressions and instinctively avoid others; therefore when a stranger uses an “avoided” one he proclaims that he “does not belong,” exactly as a pretended Freemason proclaims himself an “outsider” by giving the wrong “grip”—or whatever it is by which Brother Masons recognize one another.

People of position are people of position the world over—and by their speech are most readily known. Appearance on the other hand often passes muster. A “show-girl” may be lovely to look at as she stands in a seemingly unstudied position and in perfect clothes. But let her say “My Gawd!” or “Wouldn’t that jar you!” and where is her loveliness then?

Ms. Post, meet Jerry Jeff Walker. You two have a lot to talk about. And remind me later, there's a certain linguist who is eager to ask you about negative evidence...

Finally, the largest count of "people" that I've found in the classics, from the discussion of George Whitefield's public speaking in Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography:

He had a loud and clear voice, and articulated his words and sentences so perfectly, that he might be heard and understood at a great distance, especially as his auditories, however numerous, observ'd the most exact silence. He preach'd one evening from the top of the Court-house steps, which are in the middle of Market-street, and on the west side of Second-street, which crosses it at right angles. Both streets were fill'd with his hearers to a considerable distance. Being among the hindmost in Market-street, I had the curiosity to learn how far he could be heard, by retiring backwards down the street towards the river; and I found his voice distinct till I came near Front-street, when some noise in that street obscur'd it. Imagining then a semi-circle, of which my distance should be the radius, and that it were fill'd with auditors, to each of whom I allow'd two square feet, I computed that he might well be heard by more than thirty thousand. This reconcil'd me to the newspaper accounts of his having preach'd to twenty-five thousand people in the fields, and to the antient histories of generals haranguing whole armies, of which I had sometimes doubted.

Although Franklin was a scientist with a well-deserved international reputation, this is the only piece of quantitative reasoning that I've read in his works. Finding historical counter-examples to Strunk's people peeve has become boring, and I've still got half a cup of coffee left, so what do you say we walk through this crowd estimate in Ben's virtual footsteps?

OK, let's do it. Courtesy of Google Map, Sue & Paul Drouin-Degnan's Gmap pedometer, and TinyURL, here's a map of the radius that Ben is talking about.

The distance from the west side of Second St. to the west side of Front St. along Market St. is about 452 feet, which taken as a radius would yield a semicircle of area (pi*452^2)/2 = 320,920 square feet, and allowing 2 square feet each, 160,460 people. This is more than five times greater than Ben's calculation.

To yield by his method an audience of around 30,000 people, you'd need a radius r such that (pi*r^2)/4 = 30,000, yielding r = sqrt(120,000/pi) = 195. Call it 200 ft. But this would only take Ben to Letitia St. or so, as shown on this map, less than half way to Front St. There's no reason to call Ben's geography into question -- I'm sure he knew very well where the courthouse steps were, and where Front St. was. I can see two possible sources for his mistake. One possibility is that he screwed up the arithmetic. An idea I like better is that he measured the distance in terms of paces, and later misremembered the number as counting feet. A stride length of 27 inches -- about what mine is -- would turn 450 feet into 450/(27/12) = 200 paces. QED.

So Ben Franklin made an honest mistake. Will Strunk, on the other hand, invented (or adopted) an illogical justification for a hallucinated principle of usage, and used his position of authority and his charismatic bluster to impose it on generations of impressionable students.

[Update: Jesse Sheidlower pointed out that I should have appealed to the authority of the OED on this point -- see below for details. Normally I would have done this, but this morning some internet gremlins seem to have interfered with my ability to get coherent access to the online edition. Communication has been restored, and I can quote sense 2 of the people entry:

2. In sing. With pl. concord. a. Men or women; men, women, and children; folk.
Freq. with singular modifiers in Middle English.
In ordinary usage, this is treated as the unmarked plural of person, whereas persons emphasizes the plurality and individuality of the referent.

The OED gives citations for people as a plural count noun back to Bevis of Hampton in 1330. I'm not sure what Strunk really mean by "words of number" -- do "most" and "many" count as "words of number"? If we (for no good linguistic reason) limit ourselves to the names of integers, then OED 2's earliest counterexample to Strunk's people peeve seems to be

1989 Which? Jan. 5/2 Four out of five people thought that fresh fruit and vegetables should be labelled.

though a quote from Chaucer offers an elliptical example:

c1385 CHAUCER Knight's Tale 2513 The paleys ful of peple up and doun, Heere thre, ther ten.

Jesse also offers the following sample, from Oxford's massive archives, of bigger classic pre-people integers than Ben Franklin's:

1722 D. DeFoe Jrnl. Plague Year: The town was computed to have in it above a hundred thousand people more than ever it held before.
Ibid.: Suppose them to be a fifth part, and that two hundred and fifty thousand people were left.
1776 A. Smith Wealth of Nations: In a fertile country which had before been much depopulated, where subsistence, consequently, should not be very difficult, and where, notwithstanding, three or four hundred thousand people die of hunger in one year, we may be assured that the funds destined for the maintenance of the labouring poor are fast decaying.
1846 C. Dickens Pictures from Italy: One hundred and fifty thousand people were there at least!
c1861 W. Whitman "Mannahatta" in Leaves of Grass: A million people--manners free and superb--open voices--hospitality--the most courageous and friendly young men.
1898 H. G. Wells War of the Worlds: It was a stampede--a stampede gigantic and terrible--without order and without a goal, six million people unarmed and unprovisioned, driving headlong.
1925 F. S. Fitzgerald Great Gatsby: It never occurred to me that one man could start to play with the faith of fifty million people--with the single-mindedness of a burglar blowing a safe.

You win, Jesse -- but you have to admit that the Gmap stuff was cool! ]

[For more on the history of the people peeve, see here.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at September 22, 2005 07:04 AM