I don’t know why I understand English grammar at all. I mean, I learned what others did in school, and the curriculum never taught us anything beyond what was to be tested. I never spoke in English at home, or with friends (for the most part) and I certainly don’t enjoy English music much. Movies, yes, but I like the insanity of Hindi movies a lot more (unless of course you are talking Tarantino or American Pie). Where this interest in grammar came from is still a mystery to me.
Anyway so, English grammar. I think part of why I was so intrigued by it is because there are so many nuances, so many bends in the language where it changes so drastically. And come to think of it, how many of us really pay attention? But the language? Oh, it’s doing its tricks even when you don’t notice. In simple things. Like, in “people”, and that is what I am writing about today.
It is safe to assume that you know what a “person” is. I am a person, you’re a person, he’s a person. The plural of “person” is persons. Simple? Not quite.
“Persons” implies a more countable number where the emphasis is on individuality. So it is correct to say:
The lift cannot accommodate more than eight persons; or
Three persons have arrived for the interview.
Now, you might feel odd when you are reading the examples. The reason for this is that in the constantly changing English language, somewhere along the way, we moved to using “people” as the plural for “person”. As a result, “persons” was kept largely for use in the legal or quasi-legal sense:
The lift manufacturer can be sued because they did not include a notice saying that the lift could only accommodate eight persons; or
The persons of interest in this case have asked for anonymity.
I am not too sure, but I think it happened sometime around when Chaucer was writing “a thousand people”. Notice that in spite of “a thousand” being countable he used “people”. In the general sense, people refers to a collective group where the number is uncountable or difficult to count. Typical examples would be:
Many people come to the stadium every Super Bowl night.
There were a lot of people at the market today.
However, the language mutated such that it is accepted if you use the word “people” to mean the plural of “person”. It is fine now to say:
The lift cannot accommodate more than eight people; or
Three people have arrived for the interview.
But, while “people” is a plural, it can also be a singular. Then we use the term peoples as a plural for people. It is usually used to refer to the citizens of a country. Now, citizens of a country can have different religions, tribes, ethnicity, and so on. For India, we have the people of Gujarat who are largely vegetarian, the people of Goa who celebrate Christmas and the people of West Bengal who cook great food. In perspective of the country, these are all individual units, so “people” here is singular. However, when you talk of them as a whole, then you combine the people of Gujarat + the people of Goa + the people of West Bengal to form “peoples”, the plural. So we, the peoples of India, choose to have a liberal government. Get the point? Let’s have a few more examples:
All the peoples in the world desire peace.
The church-going peoples of Africa are praying for the Pope.
I have been among the savage peoples and learned to eat the meat of an armadillo.
However, in the present context, it is fine to use “people” for everything. Only few people will know the difference between “persons”, “people” and “peoples”. But if you had to speak impeccable grammar, you people will try to remember the differences, won’t you?
PS: The preamble to the Indian Constitution says:
We, the people of India…
You see why it’s technically incorrect?