July 22, 2009

Language Tips: Equable and equitable & people or persons

Posted in equable, equitable, people or persons at 8:53 am by dlseltzer

Tip 1: Equitable or equable

A reader writes:

I just had a conversation in which the other party used the word, equable, as in: I have to be equable and offer this to all persons or none of them. It reminded me that our former Chair often used the word equable. So often that I had to look up equable and equitable…don’t know if this is an example you might use at some point or have come across it yourself.

Ah yes, equitable and equable are often confused but their meanings are distinct, and they should not be used interchangeably. There are a couple of problems with the example provided:

I have to be equable and offer this to all persons or none of them.

First, equable means unvarying or steady in an agreeable or moderate way. It often is used when talking about the climate.

I love to spend time in Hawaii; it has such an equable climate that packing for the trip is a breeze.

When used in reference to a living being, it connotes even-temperedness.

He never seemed to get angry; he displayed an equable temperament.

Flopsy doesn’t mind it when the children pull her tail; she has an equable personality.

Equitable, on the other hand, means fair or just, and that is the word the author is seeking. However (and this is my second problem with the sentence), equitable is commonly used to refer to the outcome, NOT the person making the decision. Such usage exists but is generally limited to aged philosophy texts.

It was an equitable agreement; the decision was equitable; the division of goods was equitable; it was an equitable settlement.


He was an equitable man; I want to be equitable, She was most equitable.


So I would rewrite the sentence above:

I have to make an equitable decision and offer this to all persons or none of them.

[NOTE: Another warning about considering reference sources on the internet to be completely reliable, on <yourdictionary.com>, this was an example of how equable should be used:

Consequently the gifts were divided up in a most equable manner.

No way! Oh dear!]

Tip 2: People or persons

I have to admit that there is a third thing that bugged me about the sentence we discussed in tip 1. And that is the use of ‘persons’ instead of ‘people’ although I would probably have used ‘everyone’ instead of either ‘all persons’ or ‘all people.’

Let’s correct some of the myths surrounding ‘person’ and ‘people.’ First, ‘people’ is actually not the plural form of ‘person’: the words have different Latin roots (populum meaning populace and persona meaning character).

Second, the notion that we should use ‘persons’ when referring to a specific number and ‘people’ when referring to a mass, despite Strunk and White’s exhortations, is silly. We have examples of such use that go back centuries. I have included some examples below courtesy of the University of Pennsylvania’s blog on language, http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/

Strunk and White’s argument is specious, too-”If of six people, five went away, how many people would be left? Answer: one people.” Why on earth would we say ‘one people’? Since when has English usage been subject to logic? And how do we handle words like many or several–many persons, several persons?

From Shakespeare’s King Lear (1603), Act II, Scene 2:

I dare auouch it Sir, what fifty Followers?
Is it not well? What should you need of more?
Yea, or so many? Sith that both charge and danger,
Speake ‘gainst so great a number? How in one house
Should many people, vnder two commands
Hold amity? ‘Tis hard, almost impossible.

From John Taylor’s gory pre-1630 poem, Taylors Water-worke:

In Henries Raigne and Maries (cruell Queene)
Eight thousand people there hath slaughtered beene,
Some by the Sword, some Hang’d, some burnt in fire,
Some staru’d to death in Prison, all expire.
welue thousand and seuen hundred more beside,
Much persecuting trouble did abide.

From Jane Austen’s Emma (1815), chapter 8:

Waiving that point, however, and supposing her to be, as you describe her, only pretty and good-natured, let me tell you, that in the degree she possesses them, they are not trivial recommendations to the world in general, for she is, in fact, a beautiful girl, and must be thought so by ninety-nine people out of an hundred; and till it appears that men are much more philosophic on the subject of beauty than they are generally supposed; till they do fall in love with well-informed minds instead of handsome faces, a girl, with such loveliness as Harriet, has a certainty of being admired and sought after, of having the power of chusing from among many, consequently a claim to be nice.

From Charles Darwin’s, Journal of Researches into the Natural History and Geology of the countries visited during the voyage round the world of H.M.S. Beagle (1839), chapter 16:

At Ica forty-two people thus miserably perished.

From Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi (1883), chapter 45:

If you add six ladies to the company, you have added six people who saw so little of the dread realities of the war that they ran out of talk concerning them years ago, and now would soon weary of the war topic if you brought it up.

And finally, from Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1916), chapter 8:

From your account, there are only two people whom we can positively say did not go near the coffee-Mrs. Cavendish, and Mademoiselle Cynthia.

Third, using ‘persons’ when referring to multiple individuals acting as individuals and ‘people’ when referring to a group acting as a group is just plain wrong.

And finally, the wackiest myth I found demanded that we use persons when referring any group of individuals and ‘people’ when referring to a group of individuals with a single cultural or ethnic identity. The last myth probably is the result of confusing the meaning of ‘people’ with ‘peoples,’ which refers to a group sharing a common condition, e.g., religion, culture, language, race, ethnicity.

So what to use ‘persons’ or ‘people’? To me, it’s pretty simple. As always, our goal in writing is achieving clarity and grace. We wouldn’t use ‘persons’ in conversation; it’s way too stodgy. So why use it in writing? I’d reserve ‘persons’ for legal writing and stick with people for our purposes. Power to the people!




  1. Jen said,

    Is there an alternate word for ‘equitable’ that can be applied to people?

    • dlseltzer said,

      I just woke up. Let me get back to you shortly.

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