Grrr -- this is one word that really bugs me (except when it's used to deliberately distinguish an individual from a collective body). Why not "person"? Why not "someone"? "Individual" just seems like a bureaucratese or academese synonym for these simpler terms; it makes the writing seem more formal and stilted with no countervailing increase in precision.

Again, if you want to distinguish individuals from corporations, or want to discuss individual rights as a way of stressing their protecting individuals from the state, that's fine. But if in context "individual" simply means "person," it seems to me that "person" is the much better term.

frankcross (mail):
I give, you are a bit of an odd duck, I think. Isn't this a strange place to take a stand? I can't say I have given this much thought and I probably generally use person. But in the law, corporate personhood would seem to make individual the preferable choice for reference to a human being. Although the better phrasing would have to be "individual person." How are you with that?
5.9.2006 3:20pm
Tuch (mail):
In lawyer-talk, "person" is ambiguous. It can refer to individual humans or it can refer to "legal" persons. Moreover, using "individual" or "individual person" has a kind of ideological content, expressing individualism and the separate importance of the individual human.
5.9.2006 3:25pm
deweber (mail):
The one that always gets me is "resource". Used in such statements as "We need three more resources on this project to finish it on time.". This treats a person as equivalent to a machine. While for planning purposes in a project management tool this equivalence is appropriate, it seems demeaning to extract it out and use it when one knows that actual people are being discussed. "three more people" seems more honorable.
5.9.2006 3:31pm
Almost as bad as "utilize" for "use."
5.9.2006 3:32pm
MikeR (mail):
I am reminded of an argument of why it is better to use a non-pejorative term like "German" rather than a pejorative like "Kraut," even setting aside the obvious reasons about racism or stereotypes--the gist of the argument is that one finds it easier to make non-serious arguments when one uses the pejorative. This is true of political labels as well, like "feminazi" or "chicken hawk" where the term tends to replace the argument.

Perhaps bureaucrats prefer the term "individual" because it makes a person a little less human.
5.9.2006 3:32pm
dejapooh (mail):
Personally, I like what Scott Adams uses...

5.9.2006 3:35pm
Houston Lawyer:
I must agree that in lawyer speak, "person" and "individual" have different meanings. Lawyer speak is unfortunately expanding to other areas. We tend to qualify every phrase to reflect our lack of perfect knowledge. I used to get pegged for being an attorney based upon my business attire. Now that we're business casual, I find that it is the manner of speech which gives me away.
5.9.2006 3:40pm
Neal R. (mail):
Professor Volokh sure is one finical individual person!
5.9.2006 3:40pm
Ex-Fed (mail) (www):
I encounter it frequently in coptalk, where it is used to denote "scumbag."

"I then exited my vehicle to interact with said individual. Said individual was beligerent and violent, and struck repeatedly at my baton and boots with his temples, solar plexus, knees, and groin."
5.9.2006 3:49pm
Professor - leaving aside the issue of corporate personhood, I think you have a lack of appreciation for nuance and connotation. "Individual" stresses that someone is separate from a collective or aggregate body, but "person" stresses that they're different from an animal or rock. This can be a big deal, rhetorically. Compare "individual freedom" with "human freedom" or "the freedom of the person." Completely different animals.

The pluralization of "individual," "person" and "someone" all work slightly differently too. "Individuals" is each separate person. "People" is ambigious because it can refer to each individual or to an aggregate. There's no good pluralization of "someone." The choice of "individuals" may be useful in contexts which demands more precision.
5.9.2006 3:54pm
MXF (mail):
Personally, it doesn't bug me. I utilize both, sometimes just for variety. What does bug me are the persons who always correct the use of "which" in place of "that." There is virtually never an ambiguity created--it's just someone demonstrating they know the rule (which by the way was not the rule until White overruled Strunk way back when!!)
5.9.2006 3:56pm
speedwell (mail):
I use the word "individual" in place of "person" or something more specific when I deliberately mean to contrast it with a collective. I don't use it much this way. As far as I'm concerned it can, even then, always be replaced by the identical adjective or even omitted:

"Safety is the responsibility of the individual." Rather than relying upon your buddies to keep you safe, for example. But I think it's better as, "Safety is an individual responsibility."

"The sheepdog separated several individuals from the milling herd of sheep." Better as, "The sheepdog separated several individual sheep from the milling herd." Or else just, "...separated several sheep from...."

But my father, to whom English is a second language learned in Pittsburgh in the late 50s, always uses it as a wisecrack. "Oh, so you think you're a clever individual?" This is not a compliment. :)
5.9.2006 4:02pm
Syd (mail):

Brian: Look, you've got it all wrong! You don't NEED to follow ME, You don't NEED to follow ANYBODY! You've got to think for your selves! You're ALL individuals!
The Crowd: Yes! We're all individuals!
Brian: You're all different!
The Crowd: Yes, we ARE all different!
Man in crowd: I'm not...
The Crowd: Sch!
5.9.2006 4:05pm
speedwell (mail):
I just recalled that I was voted "Most Individual" in the eight grade yearbook poll. That was not a compliment, either. LOL
5.9.2006 4:05pm
Syd (mail):
(Monty Python's Life of Brian, of course.
5.9.2006 4:06pm
K Ashford (mail):
"Individual" has a slightly different meaning than "person". It can imply uniqueness, not just singularity.

To illustrate, think of Monty Python's "Life of Brian" -- specifically, the part where the crowd chants (in unison): "We are all individuals".

If they said, "We are all persons", it just doesn't work.
5.9.2006 4:07pm
You should be less personocentric. When non-person individuals come around, I won't have to revise all of my text to be PC.
5.9.2006 4:09pm
speedwell (mail):
Imagine if they had shouted, "We are all resources." Scary. heh.
5.9.2006 4:10pm
Yeah, kind of like "gentleman." I can't belive how many times I've seen someone on Cops or some other show say something like, "So the gentleman there with the swastika tattoo was pointing the gun at me, and the other gentleman..."
5.9.2006 4:11pm
Volvodriver (mail):
How about the gratuitous use of "human" (e.g., "the CDC is particularly concerned about transmission of the bird flu from human to human") where "person" or "people" would do, as if there are people who are not human.

Read this in the Tuesday Morning Quarterback once, and it has peeved me ever since. Thanks, Gregg Easterbrook.
5.9.2006 4:15pm
Eh Nonymous (mail) (www):
Does that mean we should rename the Center for Individual Rights the "Center for Personal Rights"?

Is there a personal right to firearms, as opposed to a group one?

I'm sure many other serious questions are askable, but none of them seem particularly critical.

Ex-Fed: Nice reference. Reminds me, as CEB, of the term "honorable gentleman." Used of and by Congresspersons, as in "The Honorable Gentleman is a scurvy cur." - Ambrose Bierce.
5.9.2006 4:29pm
MegaTroopX (mail):
DS: What's with you?! Why are you an individual?!

(Said when someone f**ks up)
5.9.2006 4:54pm
BobH (mail):
The one that bugs ME is pluralizing "person" as "persons," rather than "people." Newscasters do this almost invariably: "Three persons were arrested."
5.9.2006 5:47pm
"Person" has such a bland ring to it. I prefer "man." But somehow that always gets red-lined by my editors. So I use individual. Except when EV will be reading.
5.9.2006 5:47pm
wavemaker (www):
The learned commenters' explications' of the word's subtleties and nuances are on point. However, I am most nettled by the utilization of the word by individuals without knowledge of such subtleties simply because it affords a singular opportunity to utilize one of only a small number of four-syllable word in that individual's vocabulary.

5.9.2006 6:21pm
MR (mail):
I'm not buying the "lawyer speak" arguments. Sure, "person" can mean any legal entity (including corporation), but the equavalent lawyer speak for a human is "natural person" and not "individual."
5.9.2006 6:23pm
Isaac Zaur (mail):
Where I went to high school (central Vermont) it also means (in the substantive form) "eccentric." As in: he's a real individual. Synonym: "unit." Ayuh. He's a real unit.
5.9.2006 6:29pm
Tony (mail):
You aren't the first to notice this. As Orwell observed:

...Pretentious diction. Words like phenomenon, element, individual (as noun), objective, categorical, effective, virtual, basic, primary, promote, constitute, exhibit, exploit, utilize, eliminate, liquidate, are used to dress up a simple statement and give an air of scientific impartiality to biased judgements.

From Politics and the English Language, which I re-read at least once a year.
5.9.2006 7:01pm
I'm much more distressed by the locution "singular individual". "Singular person" kinda sucks too.
5.9.2006 7:03pm
Andy (www):
"And even without clucking like a hen
Everyone gets noticed, now and then,
Unless, of course, that personage should be
Invisible, inconsequential me!"

-John Kander &Fred Ebb
5.9.2006 7:05pm
Robert Schwartz (mail):
I use the terms man and men.
5.9.2006 7:10pm
Personhood connotes a panoply of personal rights that may or may not be applicable in a given context. Enemy combatants are "individuals" but per Johnson v. Eisentrager not necessarily "persons". Personhood also lacks prenatal application. Corporations, on the other hand, are persons but not individuals.

A term that avoids such legal thickets is useful.
5.9.2006 8:20pm
Sasha (mail):
Persons: Did you not read Eugene's closing paragraph? "Again, if you want to distinguish individuals from corporations, or want to discuss individual rights as a way of stressing their protecting individuals from the state, that's fine. But if in context 'individual' simply means 'person,' it seems to me that 'person' is the much better term."

So (frankcross, Tuch) whenever "person" would be ambiguous because of corporate issues, go ahead and use individual if you need to! And (SLS1L, Speedwell) whenever you need to stress individuality in a versus-collective sense, go ahead and use individual if you need to! Eugene is targeting the other uses of "individual," which are mostly unnecessary.
5.9.2006 9:10pm
The NJ Annuitant (mail):
Professor Volokh -- Excessive use of the the word individual is displeasing, but what really gets my goat is using impact as a verb, instead of affect.
5.9.2006 10:19pm
John Jenkins (mail):
What I find aggravating is someone giving a pretentious lecture on proper usage to an accomplished scholar and being unable to master subject-verb agreement.

Among other aggravations raised above (and one not):

Police reports: I think they all go to the same bad writing school. Police officers have an inexplicable aversion to the words "the" and "I" as though magical incantations of "this officer" and "such" or "said" made their writing more readable. (I really do think they have a class on bad writing at the police academy).

Utilize: This is the most useless word in the English language. It should always be replaced with use. This one just drives me bonkers.

Impact: I'm right there with NJ, this is retarded. I don't know why bad writers have adopted impact en masse as the misused word of choice, but I hear it and read it all the time to the point it almost drives me nuts. When I read it in a pleading, it REALLY bugs the crap out of me.

#1 of all time: "Beg the question" to mean "raise the question." I was reading a book on 1A law last night, and the author *cough*Farber*cough* wrote that a certain decision "begged the question" and led into a question that the decision left unanswered, i.e. that it raised. It's time to give into linguistic despair, I think. (What makes this most bothersome is that Farber took a degree in philosophy so he actually knows what begging the question is.)
5.9.2006 11:41pm
Ex-Fed (mail) (www):
The irony of someone who uses "retarded" like that giving lengthy language lessons is delicious.
5.10.2006 2:22am
John Jenkins (mail):
Try again, Ex-Fed. I was listing things that bug me, not giving a lesson. I recognize that the descriptivists have won, so there are no lessons. That colloquial use of retarded is pretty much the only valid one left, that I know of, given that we have chosen to use other words to refer to people whom, in the past, would have we might have referred to as retarded. (which is better than imbeciles, I guess, but I'm not Holmes.) I'll grant that the usage, toward people, is "sometimes offensive" (thanks M-W!), but that's never actually been a problem for me.
5.10.2006 3:15am
David M. Nieporent (www):
John: FYI, as long as we're being pedantic, you mean "irritating," not "aggravating."
5.10.2006 4:08am
randal (mail):
Yay for "retarded" - that's one of my best favorites too. Occasionally "retarted" for extra oomph.

Police reports: I think they all go to the same bad writing school.

That reminds me that I'm a programmer. Software specs tend not to cover failure cases, leaving us free to improvise. Somehow we all share an instinct to write error messages in a particular stilted style, omitting articles and the subject and providing no context: "Unable to connect to server." or "Failed to write file." Every project has a phase at the end dedicated to error-message cleanup.

I feel like that style comes up in other contexts - what is it exactly? Signage? (Heehee... another word I love to hate.) I see something like it on bad PowerPoints from time to time.

p.s. my all-time favorite (actual) error message: "Windows has detected an undetectable error."
5.10.2006 4:24am
"Individual" works best when identifying a natural person the way we identify a juridical entity - "Agreement between Smith LP, a California limited partnership, and Tony Smith, an individual".

"Man" is fraught with problems of future sex change, cross dressing and (when the man has an ambiguous name and communication is via e-mail) mere ignorance. "Person" is simply insufficient - Exxon Corp. is a person. "California citizen" requires proof. "Human" or "Human being" would work, but seems more clinical than legal.
5.10.2006 11:16am
Jimbino (mail):
The current worst assaults on the English spoken word include the ubiquitous "absolutely" to mean "yes," "in terms of" to mean most anything, but usually "with regard to," and the mental fart "the problem is, is that ...."
5.11.2006 11:06am