September 23, 2005

Who is this exalted parrot?

[Guest post by Benjamin Zimmer]

Geoff Pullum and Mark Liberman have bemoaned the pernicious Strunkism averring that the plural of person should only be persons and never people. Though Kenneth Wilson says that "there is a fair-sized history of complaint about the use of people as a plural with specific numbers," I do not believe that this history extends more than a few decades previous to the 1918 publication of The Elements of Style, at least based on currently digitized historical materials. Checking the American Periodicals Series database on ProQuest, I see no mention of this usage distinction before the 1890s.

The earliest prescriptivist note I've found so far comes from The Chautauquan, a Methodist magazine based in Meadville, Pa.:

It is better to say many persons think so than to say many people. [The Chautauquan, Apr. 1891, p. 109]

This piece of advice appears in a section on "The Queen's English," alongside similarly prim exhortations:

If I am not mistaken, you gave me the wrong change; say If I mistake not.

I hate such weather. Never use such an intense word as hate to express dislike.

Six years later, the people vs. persons usage issue became a lively point of contention in the pages of the New York-based literary journal The Critic, beginning with the gripe of an unnamed correspondent:

I am reminded ... that there is one word which is misused by every journalist and every author wherever the English language is written — the word 'people.' Mr. Howells, for instance, in one of his delightful novels speaks of 'three people' sitting in a room. Now, if two of these 'people' were to withdraw, one 'people' would be left — and very much left! It seems unnecessary to state — and yet it is necessary to state it — that 'people' is a collective noun, and can properly be applied only to a nation, a tribe, a class, a community. It is quite admissible to say, 'How are your people?' — meaning your family, your clan; but such a phrase as 'Fifty people were injured,' or 'A hundred people were present,' is sloppy English. 'Persons' and 'people' are not convertible terms. For twenty-five years or more, I have kept my eye on this little word 'people,' and I have yet to find a single American or English author who does not misuse it. [The Critic, Jan. 16, 1897, p. 43]

It's striking that the correspondent used precisely the same "subtractive" argument that Strunk would make two decades later in The Elements of Style. (Strunk wrote: "If of 'six people' five went away, how many 'people' would be left?") In fact, when I first read this passage, I thought it might have been penned by the young Strunk himself warming up his prescriptivist act, until I realized that he would have been 28 years old at the time — a bit too young to have observed "twenty-five years or more" of literary usage!

How might one answer this mind-bogglingly expansive claim that every single American and British author is guilty of "sloppy usage"? In a later issue of The Critic, William Henry Bishop of Yale takes up the call, albeit wearily:

Prof. W. H. Bishop of Yale writes to me: — "I must say that the remarks your correspondent writes you about 'people' are the kind of thing that make me very tired. Since when has English become so logical that you must refrain from saying 'three people' because, then, you might have to say 'one people.' You are not obliged to do anything of the kind, and never will be, unless all good writers agree upon it, and then — for that is the way language is made — it will be proper to do so. Who is this exalted parrot, who has not yet discovered that English is a mass of illogicalities, accepted by convention? And so is every other language as well. The different idioms are not obliged to square among themselves; they are so because they have been adopted, because they are so." [The Critic, Feb. 6, 1897, p. 98]

Bishop, an author of some renown, swiftly dispatches the "exalted parrot" who would seek to deny the conventionality and relative arbitrariness of any linguistic system (to invoke Saussurean semiotics). But arguments both pro and con continued in The Critic for some months afterwards:

The fact remains that if it is correct to say 'two people' it is correct to say 'one people,' meaning one person, or one individual. [The Critic, Feb. 13, 1897, p. 115]

It is usage, and only usage, that makes these things right or wrong; and, as I have said, usage has for centuries justified the use of 'people' as a virtual plural, with no singular, in this sense of 'persons.' [The Critic, Mar. 6, 1897, p. 166]

All attempts to regulate the growth of language on the basis of logical consistency are of course futile. When we are told that if we say "two people" we must also say "one people," we simply smile at the "must" and pass on. There is no necessary offense to the ear in the use of "people" as a synonym for "persons" when the word is preceded by any numeral higher than one; and so usage has conquered. [The Critic, Jan. 29, 1898, p. 69]

Was William Strunk, Jr., then a young English instructor at Cornell, paying attention to this debate in The Critic? Perhaps he was, but his imperious tone in The Elements of Style suggests that he would not have been too concerned with being dismissed as an "exalted parrot" by the William Henry Bishops of the world.

[Note added by Mark Liberman: Ben has collected a spectacular specimen of the rationalist strain of prescriptivism, according to which it's sensible to assert that "every journalist and every author wherever the English language is written" has been using an incorrect plural form. The concept of linguistic original sin is discussed in an earlier Language Log post, "The Theology of Phonology", and placed in a larger taxonomy of prescriptivist arguments in another post, "A Field Guide to Prescriptivists". ]

[Update: Richard Hershberger writes

I always knew my secret (formerly) vice of collecting old usage manuals would pay off!

In Words; Their Use and Abuse by Williams Mathews, published 1877, p. 361, in the chapter "Common Improprieties of Speech, is:

"People for persons. 'Many people think so.' Better, persons; people means a body of persons regarded collectively, a nation."

The complaint does seem to have started slowly. The usually reliable Richard Grant White didn't mention it. Alfred Ayres had a different, and even more bizarre, complaint about the word:

"People. This word is much used when some one of the words community, commonwealth, nation, public, or country would seem better to express the thought intended. People, as the word is often used, not infrequently conveys the impression that a class is meant--a class that includes all, perhaps, but the very rich and the higher officials. Now as there are, strictly, no classes in the United States, as all are equal in the eyes of our institutions, as every citizen is the peer of every other citizen, save in eligibility to the presidency, the impression conveyed by the word people is often erroneous. For example, instead of, 'The Senate must take action and obey the will of the people,' would it not better express what is intended were we to say, 'the will of the nation, or of the country'?"

(Alfred Ayres, The Verbalist 1881, 1896, 1909, 1919, p. 204.)

At least Mathews doesn't suggest that there is something particularly pernicious in the use of people with a specific "word of number" such as six, rather than a plural quantifiers like many or several. I (this is Mark Liberman now) wonder: could this bizarre condition have originated in a misunderstanding of Strunk's little regulation, in which he might have meant "words of number" simply to mean "quantifiers"?]

[Update 9/24/2005: Arnold Zwicky wrote in yesterday to point out that the (excellent) Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage has an enlightening discussion of the history of the people peeve:

The MWDEU entry cites Alford 1866 (A Plea for the Queen's English) mentioning "a correspondent who wrote in to object to the expression several people; he said it ought always to be several persons. Alford was lukewarm to the proposal." MWDEU then cites William Mathews (listed as being published in 1876), which Richard Hershberger supplied [above].

People then "went on the "Don't List" of the New York Herald and thereafter became a staple of journalistic usage writers" (Bierce 1909, Hyde 1926, Bernstein... and up to Safire and Kilpatrick). MWDEU mentions "what must have been a raging dispute on the subject in the pages of the Washington (D.C.) Times in 1915 and 1916." [Strunk is likely to have read these exchanges.]

The rest of the article is equally entertaining. The objections apparently began with several and many, then turned to numbers; some people allowed people with round numbers but disallowed it with specific numbers.

Yesterday I sent Mark some correspondence from earlier in the year in which I reported having suffered under the AP's proscription of "people" with quantifiers -- a proscription not revised in the AP style manual until "around 1980" (MWDEU).

MWDEU cites discussions by Poutsma (1904-06), citing Dickens and Punch, and by Jespersen (1909-49), going back to Chaucer and taking in Defoe, Dickens, Disraeli, and others.


Posted by Mark Liberman at September 23, 2005 12:08 AM