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Word Court

by Barbara Wallraff

Persons? Did I miss the memo announcing that the new plural form of the word person is persons? I am sure that the people who taught me the nuances of our great language would like a copy as well. Whether it's the announcer on the PA system at the Philadelphia Flower Show, requesting "persons separated from their parties to report to the information booth," or a writer for Newsweek who recently referred to "some category of persons," it seems that the use of people is being abandoned. Persons, however, is nowhere to be found in my trusty dictionary. So I ask: Why the proliferation of persons? And is this proper?

Michael Joseph Linneman
Philadelphia, Pa.

Some dictionaries presume that there's no need to specify it when a noun has a regular, -s plural, because the great majority of nouns do have them; the plural form of person has always been persons. But in fact persons is being used less and less (maybe that's why it sounds strange to you), and people is taking over most of what was once considered persons' territory -- namely, references to countable numbers of individuals.

People, not persons, is the anomaly. It can be singular, as in "We are a people fond of gardening," and it can take a regular, -s plural, as in "The peoples of Australia and New Zealand vie with the British in their love of horticulture." But when it's unmistakably plural, as in, say, "Ten thousand people attended the flower show," it doesn't have a singular form of its own. This may be why newspaper copy desks, in particular, long crossed out people wherever it came after a number, and substituted persons. It's hardly a good reason, though, given that idiomatic English is abloom with anomalies.

Discuss this feature in Post & Riposte.


When Superior Court Judge Hiller Zobel announced his ruling in the case of Louise Woodward (the British au pair who was tried in Massachusetts for the killing of the baby in her charge), a fair number of eyebrows must have been raised on both sides of the Atlantic at the judge's totally incorrect use of the word denigrate. "I do not denigrate Matthew Eappen's death nor his family's grief," Judge Zobel said.

Webster's defines
denigrate as "to defame, blacken someone's character." In his desire to use a fancier word than minimize, the judge was in over his head.

Margaret Marshall
Seattle, Wash.

Denigrate I think perhaps you are denigrating Judge Zobel when you call his use "totally incorrect," because recent editions of some dictionaries give the meaning "belittle" for denigrate, in addition to the traditional one that you cite. Nonetheless, it's surprising that there's been no hue and cry about this new use, for it parallels one that's been a staple of stern usage-guide commentary at least since the first edition of H. W. Fowler's Modern English Usage was published, in 1926. That is, we have long been cautioned not to confuse deprecate, which means "to express disapproval of," with depreciate, which means "to belittle." Lately, however, some commentators seem to have given up the fight, considering the "belittle" sense of deprecate, particularly with self- (as in "self-deprecating humor"), too firmly established to suppress. Now denigrate, which in its original sense is a near synonym for deprecate in its original sense, seems to be slithering down the path that deprecate has taken. From the St. Louis Post-Dispatch: "These comments are in no way intended to denigrate or minimize Magic Johnson's terrible tragedy." Here, as in your example, depreciate or belittle would be better.



Myriad When, if ever, is the preposition of supposed to follow the word myriad? In the middle 1930s my high school English teacher criticized a composition of mine and gave it an A- instead of a straight A because I had left out that preposition in a sentence. I had written something like "The civil war in Spain is giving me myriad troubled dreams."

Since then I've noticed
myriad being used both ways by equally grammatically correct writers. Is there one correct usage? As a septuagenarian, I think it is time to forget my concern. However, I could use your help, because I write for publication quite often, and using the word makes me nervous.

Aaron Hiller
Nashville, Tenn.

I think you deserve an A retroactively -- or maybe even an A+, considering all the grade inflation that has occurred over the past six decades. Myriad is both an adjective and a noun, and so the likes of "myriad dreams" (adjective) and "a myriad of dreams" (noun) are both correct.

Have you recently had a language dispute that you would like this column to resolve? Write to Word Court in care of The Atlantic Monthly, 77 North Washington Street, Boston, MA 02114, or send E-mail to MsGrammar@TheAtlantic.com. All letters become the property of Word Court.

Barbara Wallraff is a senior editor of The Atlantic Monthly magazine.

Illustrations by Nick Dewar

Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; November 1998; Word Court; Volume 282, No. 5; page 140.

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