March 25, 2006

Another solution to the person/people problem

It's been a while (Ben Zimmer here, with links back to postings by Mark Liberman and Geoff Pullum) since we reflected on the plural of person: persons or people?  Now Opal Eleanor Armstrong Zwicky, aged 2, offers a fresh solution, which ruthlessly applies logic to the problem and also (in the spirit of prescriptivism) clarifies stylistic choices by just discarding one of the alternatives.

For some time Opal had no plural marking by suffixes (she might, at least occasionally, have been marking plurality via the number word two, as many children do, so that "two dog" just meant "dogs" and could be used for large groups of dogs; it's often hard to tell what a small child's intentions are, however).  Then, suddenly, plural suffixes rushed in, along with possessive suffixes, and on 3/22/06 her mother, Elizabeth Daingerfield Zwicky, reported the following dialogue:

Opal: Peoples!
Me: Are there? I didn't see them.
Opal: One people.
Me: Oh, there was just one person? No wonder I missed them.
Opal: No person! One people!

You can see the wheels of logic turning here.  Where she had "lotsa people" before, she now needs a plural form, which would of course be "peoples".  For her, this is not a double plural (the way it seems to us), but just an ordinary plural, like "dogs".  Ok, nobody around her says "peoples", they all say "people" for this meaning, but she has logic on her side, and anyway, as prescriptivists sometimes tell us, even if a whole lot of people use some form they could still all be wrong wrong wrong.

Then, once you have "peoples", it follows, as must the night the day, that the singular is "people".  Hence, "one people".  Ok, once again, nobody around her says "one  people" -- she's now managed to have ALL occurrences of the lexical item people diverge from the adult standard -- but Logic Ruulz.

What about the lexical item person?  We don't have records of the speech of people around her, but I'll bet that plural "persons" is extremely rare in this speech, and that singular "person" is not particularly frequent (think about how often you really need this form in everyday conversation, when more specific nouns are available, as are indefinite pronouns like someone).  On the other hand, occurrences of "people" abound.  [Brett Reynolds reports, by e-mail on 3/25/06, that in the British National Corpus, spoken register, "people" is the #1 most common noun, with "person" at #59, and "persons" not in the top 1000.  I'd imagine that "person" is even rarer in speech directed at young children than it is in speech in general.]  So, Opal reasons: I have "people(s)" available for reference to human beings, why do I need "person(s)"?  That would just be pointless stylistic variation, like having both "that" and "which" available for marking restrictive relative clauses.  DISCARD ONE OF THE ALTERNATIVES.  In particular, discard the less frequent alternative.  Hence, "No person! One people!"

Eventually, she will come to appreciate the fact that what rules in these situations is not Logic but Society.  She will have to bow to the common usage of those around her.  Or, to put it another way, it will be time for her to join a community, rather than inventing language on her own.  [Update on 3/30/06: "peoples" has already vanished in favor of "people"; I suspect that "one people" has a very brief future.]

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Posted by Arnold Zwicky at March 25, 2006 11:28 AM