Individual or Person?

By Maeve Maddox

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Clayton Doak objects to the indiscriminate use of the word individual where person will do. Ex.

This individual was charged with criminal trespass.

The word individual comes from a Latin word meaning “indivisible.” Synonyms for its use as an adjective include single, separate, discrete, independent, sole, lone, solitary, and isolated.

The colloquial sense of individual to mean “person” was in use as early as 1742.

The Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus gives the following synonyms for individual as a noun: person, human being, mortal, soul, creature; man, boy, woman, girl; character, personage.

However, one of the contributors to the OAWT, David Foster Wallace, has this to say about using individual as a synonym for person:

As a noun, this word has one legitimate use, which is to distinguish a single person from some larger group. . . . It is not a synonym for person despite the fact that much legal, bureaucratic, and public-statement prose uses it that way . . . OAWT, p 464

Wallace deplores the substitution of individual for person and an individual for someone. He lumps this use of individual with other “pretentious, deadening puff-words” and urges us to eschew them.

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2 Responses to “Individual or Person?”

  • Deb Kincaid

    I, too, have often wondered about this. There’s a place for the word “individual”, but often “person” or “someone” works better. The use of individual at times feels stuffy and disconnected, which is okay if that is the emotion the writer wants to convey. But, usually, it’s not.

  • mailav

    good information, thanks

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