individuals, people, persons

From a mail pointer to a 1/30/19 article in the journal Psychological Science, “Similarity Grouping as Feature-Based Selection” by Dian Yu, Xiao Xiao, Douglas K. Bemis, & Steven L. Franconeri:

Individuals perceive objects with similar features (i.e., color, orientation, shape) as a group even when those objects are not grouped in space.

Point at issue: individuals rather than people, a mark of a consciously formal, “scientific” way of writing, appropriate (some believe) for reporting on research in psychology.

And a model for this usage, from the trade bible, the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, Sixth Edition, contents page:

Chapter 3: Writing Clearly and Concisely

Chapter 3 offers basic guidance on planning and writing the article. It advises readers on how to organize their thoughts, choose effective words, and describe individuals with accuracy and sensitivity.

And more models, from administrative contexts (including legal usage), as in this name for a piece of legislation:

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a four-part … piece of American legislation that ensures students with a disability are provided with Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) that is tailored to their individual needs. IDEA was previously known as the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHA) from 1975 to 1990. In 1990, the United States Congress reauthorized EHA and changed the title to IDEA (Public Law No. 94-142). Overall, the goal of IDEA is to provide children with disabilities the same opportunity for education as those students who do not have a disability. (Wikipedia link)

Individuals is a 4- or 5-syllable word that sounds, in these contexts, like an item from the technical register of English; it sounds serious, elevated. People, in contrast, is a 2-syllable word from everyday speech — not slangy, or even particularly informal, but just an all-purpose ordinary plural.

If you have a preference (as I do) for a plain style in writing (and speaking), then other things being equal, you’ll go for people here rather than individuals, and (also as I do) you’ll probably find individuals to be uncomfortably stiff and pretentious. So for decades I’ve been at odds with students who use individuals this way — they say they’ve been taught that this is the only acceptable usage for scientific writing — and with editors who want to turn my uses of people into individuals, maintaining that people is far too informal, too “chatty”, for technical and legal writing.

Now, some facts from psychology. As far as I can tell, the APA’s Publication Manual nowhere directs writers to use individuals rather than people, though its own practice seems to incline towards individuals, as above — except, strikingly, in one context (I’ll get to it in a moment) where it recommends people as a means of avoiding a usage it finds unacceptable on other grounds.

The publisher of the journal Psychological Science (where this posting started), the Association for Psychological Science — less corporate and generally more user-friendly than the APA (I’m biased: I’m an APS Fellow) — takes no position on individuals vs. people, and people (referring to human beings in general, or to particular groups of them) appears fairly often in its publications. From the very same mailing as the similarity-grouping item above, there’s this mail pointer to a 1/29/19 article in Psychological Science, “Perspective Taking and Self-Persuasion: Why “Putting Yourself in Their Shoes” Reduces Openness to Attitude Change” by Rhia Catapano, Zakary L. Tormala, & Derek D. Rucker:

Contrary to a commonly held assumption, people might be more receptive to others’ views when they do not “put themselves in their shoes,” this study suggests.

Now, a note on the place where the APA actually recommends people — in discussions of bias-free language, where they explicitly suggest locutions like

people with disabilities, transgender and gender nonconforming people, people with AIDS

instead of things like

the disabled, the transgendered and gender nonconformists, AIDS sufferers

on the grounds that the latter, shorter expressions are essentializing and demeaning to the people they refer to. From my 12/4/16 posting “International Day of Persons with Disabilities” (December 3rd, “using the rather awkward name recommended by the UN“), about:

objections to disabled (as a predicate Adj, as in They are disabled; as a prenominal Adj, as in disabled people, or, especially, in the elliptical nouning the disabled ‘disabled people (as a group)’)  — objections that are based, so far as I can tell, not on unpleasant tinges in actual usage, but on theoretical objections to Adjs (predicate, prenominal, or especially nouned) for reference to people. The idea seems to be that such uses are essentializing, attributing a definitional property to people, rather than referring merely to a concomitant state. For conditions that limit or restrict people’s ability to function, the mantra is:

The disability is not the person.

So I should not say I’m disabled, or I’m a disabled person, or I’m one of the disabled. Instead, I should say I have a disability, or I’m someone (or a person, or a man) with a disability. (The proscription and prescription would apply equally to I’m crippled and I’m handicapped, even if there were no other objections to them.)

This position turns a connotational subtlety (of little or no relevance in many contexts) into a rigid claim about the semantics of adjectival constructions, a claim that I believe to be simply false. But the position has been so widely disseminated that many now see things like I’m disabled — I usually say I’m significantly disabled, to convey the importance of my disabilities in the context of the conversation — as offensive, in fact necessarily so. I must not say that; it’s a slur on people with disabilities.

The APA suggests constructions with people, but (as you can see above), there are those who use individuals instead, and (yet another variable in the mix) those who use persons instead of people (a usage point with a long and tangled history).

individuals vs. people. Above, preferences for individuals over people (or the reverse) on the basis of register / style. But there are also people who prefer individuals to people on the basis of their semantic connotations. For this, we need to look at the range of uses of individual and people. From NOAD:

C[ount] noun individual: [a] a single human being as distinct from a group, class, or family: boat trips for parties and individuals [the sense under discussion here]. [b] a single member of a class: they live in a group or as individuals, depending on the species. [c] [with adjective] informal a person of a specified kind: the most selfish, egotistical individual I have ever met. [d] a distinctive or original person.

PL noun people: 1 [a] human beings in general or considered collectively: the earthquake killed 30,000 people [the sense under discussion here]. [b] (the people) the citizens of a country, especially when considered in relation to those who govern them: his economic reforms no longer have the support of the people. [c] (the people) those without special rank or position in society; the populace: he is very much a man of the people. [d] (the PeopleUS the state prosecution in a trial: pretrial statements made by the People’s witnesses.

C noun people: 2 (plural peoples) [treated as singular or plural] the men, women, and children of a particular nation, community, or ethnic group: the native peoples of Canada.

PL noun people: 3 (one’s people) [a] the supporters or employees of a person in a position of power or authority: I’ve had my people watching the house for some time now. [b] dated a person’s parents or relatives: my people live in West Virginia.

The very brief take-away: using individuals might suggest that you’re treating some group from the point of view of its members; while using people might suggest that you’re treating it from the point of view of the collectivity as a whole (which just happens to have parts) — an idea that’s encouraged by the fact that people doesn’t look PL (having no plural marker, it looks like a M[ass] noun).

[Digression: people really really acts like a PL C noun, not a SG M one:

– It takes PL-selected determiners: ✓many/those people, *much/that people

– It takes PL verb agreement: ✓People are funny*People is funny

– It takes PL anaphors: Peoplestood up, and ✓theyi / *it applauded ]

In any case, given this semantic subtlety, you might choose to write individuals with disabilities rather than people with disabilities, and to make similar choices in writing up research.

people vs. persons.  people is a PL-only noun, but other nouns and pronouns can be pressed into service to fill the role of the corresponding SG. Prime among these is the noun person (which has its own PL, persons). As a result, both people and persons are available to serve as a PL for person. These two noun forms are by no means interchangeable —  ✓People are funny*Persons are funny — largely in line with the individualistic semantics of persons and the collectivity semantics of people — but in general people is available as an alternative PL to persons.

Or was, until usage authorities began to intervene in the matter. MWDEU‘s                                                  wonderful entry on people, persons begins:

The questioning of the use of people to mean persons began in the middl of the 19th century. Alford 1866 mentions a correspondent who wrote in to object to the expression several people; he said it ought always to be several persons. (p. 723)

And then we were off to the races. Controversy raged, through the 1980s. Ultimately:

It is reassurimg to know that recent handbooks and style books will now allow you to use people as Chaucer did nearly 600 years ago or as Dickens did a century or more ago.

Meanwhile, we find persons appearing where people would always have been acceptable: persons with disabilities instead of people with disabilities. This usage seems not to have made its way into scientific and technical writing, however; instead, individuals fills its slot.

The usage literature on individual. It’s enormous, tangled, and entertaining — another wonderful MWDEU entry (pp. 538-40). But it has nothing to do with individuals vs. people (a topic that appears to get no MWDEU attention at all); instead, it’s about SG individual ‘person, human being’, surviving these days contrasting a single referent to a larger group, as in this NOAD subentry (repeated from above):

[c] [with adjective] informal a person of a specified kind: the most selfish, egotistical individual I have ever met.

This usage (in older writing, often facetious or disparaging in tone) was a journalistic mannerism of late Victorian times and consequently excited the ire of usage authorities for some time. Now it’s standard, but informal and a bit old-fashioned — I’d use person instead —  while the form individuals in scientific and technical uses is (hyper)formal.

Context, context, context.

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