Corporations are people?

All right, class, what’s the plural of mouse?

Of course, it’s mice when what is meant is an animal. Even animal names that look like compounds with mouse (though they are not so, etymologically), like dormouse or titmouse, take –mice in the plural.

But when what is meant is an electronic device associated with a computer, the usual plural is mouses. When asked to pluralize the statement “a touch screen acts like a mouse,” most people will probably say “touch screens act like mouses,” not like mice.

Now then, what is the plural of person?

Of course, it’s persons. But for over 600 years people has also been used as the plural of person (as well as, at times, of man [when not limited to the male of the species] or of individual). There was a time, from about 100 till 30 years ago, when this usage was criticized by peevers, but I don’t think it is any longer.

It is not so in legal language. The United States Constitution, for example, uses the people (the definite article is never absent) when it means the collective citizenry of the Union or of a State: “We, the People of the United States…”; “…chosen every second Year by the People of the several States”; “the right of the people…”; “…reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” In none of these instances can persons be substituted for people. Otherwise, persons is invariably used: “…the whole Number of free Persons”; “…the Names of the Persons voting…”; “…The Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit…”; “…vote by Ballot for two persons”; “All persons born or naturalized in the United States…”; and others. Note that all these citations refer to natural persons, that is, human beings.

But there is another reason why the law eschews people as simply the plural of person: it also recognizes a legal person (also artificial person, juridical person, juristic person, and body corporate, also commonly called a vehicle), an entity that (to further quote Wikipedia) “has a legal name and has rights, protections, privileges, responsibilities, and liabilities under law, just as natural persons (humans) do.” But, to quote even further, “[g]enerally, legal persons do not have all of the same rights—such as the right to freedom of speech—that natural persons have, although the United States has become an exception in this regard.” But even in the United States legal persons (such as corporations, which are legal persons by definition) lack the right to vote, marry, or adopt children.

To conclude: corporations may be persons, but they are not people.

Class dismissed.


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