The Grammar Factor – January 2011

Reader’s question: What is the difference between people and persons?

Answer: These days, most of us use people when talking about more than one person, though I understand persons is still used in some legal documents.

A pseudo-rule grew up in Victorian times that the plural of person was persons when referring to a specific, countable number of individuals, but that people should be used for large, indefinite numbers.

What is interesting about these words is that they both derive from Latin, but from different words. Person comes from persona, an actor’s mask or a character in a play, and people from populum, referring to the populace.  

Punctuation Guide

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A and an

A reader commented that she was surprised Channel 9 (Australian TV) doesn’t know the a and an sound rule with h.

If the first sound of the following word is a vowel sound (whether or not the letter is a vowel), use an.

     an elephant, an hour, an honour

If the first sound of the following word is a consonant sound (whether or not the letter is a consonant), use a.

     a helicopter, a hotel, a union

Also use an with some initialisms.

     an FAQ, an SMS message

Killed in or died?

Another annoying newsreader habit the reader commented on, is the use of the expression ‘killed in’. She said that surely someone has to be killed by someone or something, not ‘killed in’.

     Ten people were killed in the bushfires.

I agree it would be better to say:

     Ten people died in the bushfires.
     The bushfires killed 10 people.

ABC Radio National Style Guide

ABC Radio has a national A–Z style guide online at  

Cliché of the day

I know it’s not politically correct, but I like clichés and now I can wallow in them to my heart’s content, happy as a pig in clover, with a cliché a day that cuts to the quick. The cliché for the day is:

cuts to the quick


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