We the People…

Today you’re getting a bonus – two bonuses, in fact. My primary objective is to clear up an apostrophe issue with the word people. You’ll also get a linguistics lesson, and you’ll learn an unusual rule about plurals.

I’m going to begin with a tale from my early days as a college English instructor. A major publisher had just issued the first edition of a comprehensive English handbook that is still in print, many editions and millions of copies later.

And there, in an example box, was a sentence containing the word peoples’. Gack: The apostrophe should have been before the s – people’s. And this in an English handbook!

Nobody – not the author, the editor, or the copyeditor – caught the mistake. It was too late for the publisher to do anything about it: The book had already been printed and distributed. (The mistake was corrected in the next edition.) 

You don’t have to be clairvoyant to figure out how that mistake happened. Apostrophes are usually (and stupidly) taught with a rule that goes like this: “Before the s if it’s singular, after the s if it’s plural, but before the s if it’s a special plural – a plural that doesn’t end with s, such as men, women, children, and people.

Of course many people (ha!) immediately forget about those special plurals, and that’s how we end up with mistakes like “childrens’ health” and “Dr. Reynold’s office.”

There’s an easier way. Just spell the word or name, and put the apostrophe after the last letter. This trick will work 100% of the time.

Dr. Reynolds – Dr. Reynolds‘ office

children – children‘s health

people – people‘s wishes

But some of you whose knowledge of English is deep and broad are protesting that peoples’ wishes can be correct in some circumstances. You’re right!

Anthropologists use people to signify the members of a nation, community, or ethnic group. A diverse country or region would be inhabited by various peoples. So, for example, you could talk about “the peoples of Australia.”

If you’re a royalty fan, you probably remember a famous story about King George VI (father of the present Queen) and an exchange with some of his subjects during the Blitz. On one of his visits to a bombed-out neighborhood, someone called out, “Thank God for a good king!” His quick-thinking response was, “Thank God for a good people!”

Most of us would have said “Thank God for good people” – but his choice of a good people reinforced the idea of British unity.

Back to peoples. Scientists often use plurals to signify diversity. If you keep goldfish in an aquarium, they’re fish. But if the tank holds several species – angelfish, tetras, and gouramis – they’re fishes.

One topic remains: That lesson in linguistics I promised you.

The Elements of Style by Strunk and White contains this astonishing injunction (which I’m going to debunk in a moment):  “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?”

There’s some linguistic history behind this silly rule. Our word people traces its origin back to the Latin word populum (“the population”). Clearly populum can’t be used with a number. The proper Latin word for an individual is persona. So it makes sense that you can’t talk about “six people.”

Except that you can.

The golden rule for language is that rules are made by the people (persons?) who use that language. If you do a Google search, you’ll discover that professional writers use people with a number all the time. Here’s an example from a March 1 article in the Washington Post:

Six people were shot and wounded — one of them critically — in Southeast Washington on Monday afternoon and early Tuesday, according to D.C. police.

If you check the Oxford English Dictionary, which traces the history of words in English, you’ll discover that writers have been using people with a number as far as Chaucer.

But what about that etymology problem? The answer is that a word’s origin doesn’t determine its meaning: Common usage does. Think of the word manuscript, for example. The original Latin means “written by hand.” But if you submitted a handwritten manuscript to a publisher today, it would be unceremoniously tossed in the trash.

I hope you enjoyed today’s triple lesson (and the nod to royalty!).

King George VI

    King George VI


2 thoughts on “We the People…

  1. Gustavo A. Rodríguez

    Incidentally – I am more detailed oriented than I should – you can potentially write ” peoples’ ” if you are talking about a variety of ethnic groups. If you check the OED, it also says (if I recall correctly) that you can use the word “people” as a countable noun (one people, two peoples) to refer to ethic groups, tribes, and the like. For example, I remember learning about the Indo-European peoples. In such a context, I guess you could speak of “those primitive peoples’ customs…”
    Of course, everything else you’ve said in your post still stands.

  2. ballroomdancer Post author

    Thanks, Gustavo! I did mention the anthropology issue in my post, but I omitted it from the Instant Quiz answer and opened the door to some confusion. English is complicated! (And fun!)

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