May 16, 2013

Weekly Language Usage Tips: payer or payer & youth or youths

Posted in payor/payer, youth/youths at 6:15 am by dlseltzer

Tip 1: Payor or [payer

A reader writes:

Is payor an acceptable word?  I know it is commonly used in discussions about insurers and insurance payments for health care, and I know that the word “payer” is correct, but is the spelling “payor” also correct?

The current view is that ‘payer’ is the preferred term in all contexts. However, that doesn’t mean that ‘payor’ is wrong. It is not.

Some people differentiate between an institution (e.g., payor—the insurance company) and an individual (e.g., payer—Joe is the payer of his family’s bills).

Some people say that ‘payor’ is the GB version, and ‘payer’ is the US version. These people would be wrong; ‘payer’ is seen more often in both GB and the US.

In law, ‘payor’ is the preferred word for legal writing.

When I was learning this word in school as a child, the word was ‘payor.’ Ask any of the other dinosaurs—they’ll tell you.

AMA Manual of Style likes ‘payer’ in every context. The Chicago Manual of Style accepts either word, but has a slight preference for ‘payer.’ Garner prefers ‘payer,’ also.

I’m willing to be swayed by the crowd, here. Let’s go with ‘payer’ in all but legal contexts.


Tip 2: Youth or youths 

I was recently reviewing a manuscript, and the first author clearly likes using ‘youth’ for both the singular and the plural forms of the word. He’s not a big fan of ‘youths.’

See this, for example:

Youth, who identified as both intermittent drug users and smokers, felt that using substances is a pervasive behavior that persists despite existing school-based prevention programs. Youth who experience substance use report multiple facets of such behavior. Findings illustrate the strengths and limitations of existing  prevention efforts and the value of engaging some youth as partners in the research process.

Oh my.

I know I told you never to rely on the Internet as a viable reference, right? Here’s a good example of why. When I was looking to see what others had said about youth or youths (I found that I had written about it a couple of years ago, too), I found this:

Resolved Question

Is the correct plural form of youth – youth or youths?

Best Answer – Chosen by Voters

Youth can be plural or singular; however, people who are trying to act scientific, stuck-up, official, or whatever, frequently use “youths.”

Did I say, ‘oh my’? Oh my.

Please, please, please don’t believe that something is true just because it is on the Internet, even if it has been voted the ‘best answer.’

I recently got an email, disputing something I wrote in the wlut, citing Wikipedia. Oy. (I don’t need to tell you that the writer was wrong, do I?)

So at the risk of seeming ‘scientific, stuck-up, official, or whatever,’ the ‘best answer,’ is, in large part, incorrect.

The ‘official’ answer is this (and this is where the writer who answered the question is right): youth can be both singular and plural. When used in the plural, the word is referring to young people in general or collectively, an uncountable number of people:

The youth of America have grown up with technology and are comfortable using a variety of devices.

The sentence clearly refers to more than one youth (a good hint is the plural verb, ‘have’), but we don’t know how many—it is an uncountable number. So we use ‘youth.’

If we are talking about young people acting as individuals or a countable number of young people, the word we use is ‘youths.’

We were able to find 16 youths who were willing to participate in our study.

The youths standing in that corner are planning to study physics when they go to college.

So, the so-called ‘best answer’ found by my google search is mostly wrong; although, I have to admit that I was impressed that the writer used the hyphen in ‘stuck-up’ correctly.

But maybe that’s just me.

At any rate, if you are talking about individuals or people you can count, use ‘youths.’ If you talking about an uncountable collective group, use ‘youth.’




  1. Frankie said,

    Payor? This is definitely not common in the UK. Maybe it’s used in legalese, but it doesn’t appear in any of the three dictionaries I have to hand (Oxford, Longman and Collins – all published in the UK).

  2. WendyShad said,

    Legal stuffs give me headaches. Glad to learn that anyway.
    We’d like to be very precise in using some words, but ambiguity always exists… Take family as an example: can we tell, every time, if it is regarded as a whole unit or all the individuals?

    • Smilicity said,

      Not sure if I’m necro-ing or if you will ever receive this message. However, family works like the word group. They both have plural forms: families, groups. However, they will always refer to more than one person. I hope it’s clear.
      1) My group/ family is eating now.
      2) All the groups/ families have been instructed to write a reflection of the course.

      That’s just from my knowledge, I hope it helps you.

  3. Patrick said,

    English is such a difficult language. Thank you for explaining this clearly.

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