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ESL Story: Difficult pairs: people vs. person

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Difficult Pairs: people vs. person

The usual way to make a noun plural in English is to add an‘s’. That’s the way things usuallyare. But as Sportin’ Life in Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess says: It ain’t necessarily so. Or as we in our correct English would say: It isn’t necessarily so. There are words that are plural in an undercover way and don’t show the‘s’ to help us on our way. ‘People’ is a case in point. It’s a word in general that refers to you, me and the rest of the world. We are (at least I hope so) friendly people.

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We say: The people we live next door to are always very quiet and never cause us any problems. When we want to generalise (incidentally a dangerous thing to do) we say: Most people are of the same opinion as me. This is a cunning way to say I am right and you are wrong. Again: People in the south are much more friendly than those in the north. These are just examples but I hope you get my point that ‘people’ in the sense I’ve used it takes a plural verb although there is no‘s’ present. Now what would happen if we did put this‘s’ at the end and said/wrote: ‘Peoples’? Now everything has changed because here we are talking about ‘nations’. We say: The French speaking peoples live in different parts of the world. And of course we can use ‘people’ as a singular noun to describe a nation as well as in: The Ancient Greeks were a very inventive people.

Now just to be difficult ‘person’ behaves in the usual way but changes its meaning depending on whether it’s singular or plural. If we want to describe someone (male or female) we can say. I must admit I’ve always considered her to be a very pleasant person. Again: What sort of person throws an empty cigarette packet on the ground instead of putting it in a waste bin? Well we call this person a ‘litter lout’. ‘Litter’ is another word for ‘rubbish’ and ‘lout’ means according to my dictionary a ‘vulgar or clumsy person.

If you’re very public spirited and you see a person do this, you pick it up, hand it back and say: This town doesn’t want this thank you. Of course to do that you have to be quite bold as well. When we pluralize this word and say ‘persons’, we are now in a different situation altogether. We are in the world of official English or even legal English. On the back of a taxi we see a plate saying: This vehicle is licensed to carry 6 persons. Inside the lift we see the words: This lift is able to carry a maximum of 5 persons. My hope now is that everyone, every person and all the people who read this, have followed my comments.

Dear Friend,
If you have any questions or comments regarding this essay, please post your answers on the forum here: Person or people?

Many thanks.

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Next:ESL Story: Difficult pairs: speak vs. talk

Author: Alan Townend


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