People vs. Persons

By Mark Nichol

What’s the difference between people and persons? The fast-and-loose answer is that people is correct and persons is wrong; the former word has supplanted the latter as the plural form of person.

At one time, the distinction between the terms was that people is a mass noun referring to an undetermined number of humans (“I’ve known a lot of people like that”), while persons is employed when the quantity is known (“Seven persons were apprehended”). Persons is still appropriate in legal and other formal contexts (“Authorities are seeking persons of interest”) and when referring to the human body (“A search was made of their persons”), but in one of those curious cases of illogical semantic shift, it has all but disappeared in general usage.

On a related note, some readers are puzzled by peoples, but this is merely the plural form of the collective noun people; “the peoples of the Arctic region,” for example, refers to multiple distinct ethnic groups: the people of here, the people of there, and the people of the other place: the peoples.

People, meanwhile, is occasionally used as a verb synonymous with populate (“We will soon people the entire planet”); the antonym is unpeople. (Populate and people share etymological origin.)

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14 Responses to “People vs. Persons”

  • Michele Cooper

    What about the use of “individual” or “individuals”? Are these to be avoided? I see these words used all the time in academic writing, but in my former life as a journalist we always used person or people.

  • Ron

    I liked this post. it was short, and to the point.

  • Ken Henry

    “Individual” and “individuals” are also widely used in law enforcement, which I supppose is why we hear them so frequently on television news reports. I still prefer person or people, simple because I prefer two syllables to five.

  • Kate

    What about the (annoying) expression: “He’s good people.” I like to think it is grammatically incorrect.

  • venqax

    Interesting history. I still think it’s hard to find a case where persons can be used, but people wouldn’t work just as well grammatically. “Seven people were apprehended”, there are 10 to 15 people on a basketball team, the car seats 5 people. “Persons of interest” and other legal uses seem more like terms of art: People of interest would sound awkward in law enforcement-speak, but I don’t think it would actually be wrong.

    Kate: “He’s good people” is, as you say, an expression. An informal expression that is somewhat idiomatic. No, it’s not really grammatically correct but such colloquialisms don’t really need to be.

  • Mark Nichol

    Michele and Ken:

    I find individual(s) to be excessively formal. The use of the terms by law enforcement officials, as well as apprehended, custody, and the like is stilted — quotes in print, and audio and video clips of interviews and press conferences that include such terms always appear and sound as if the speaker is trying to come across as more authoritative by employing multisyllabic jargon: “The individuals have been apprehended and are now in custody” is more reassuring than “We caught the person and put him in jail.”

  • tfk krshy

    I understand it like this;
    A person is a unit (an individual) in a specific group of persons (individuals); a cluster of these groups forms a specific category of (people) which in turn shows itself as part in a collection of clusters or categories (peoples).

  • Artie

    I often have foreign students who insist that ‘persons’ is the correct plural. The basis for this is usually due to the ubiquitous sign in lifts/elevators
    Max Load 6 persons

  • venqax

    Well, it is too often overlooked that the 3 most authoritative references for usage are dictionaries, elevator signs, and style books, in that order. Ceritification of that can be found in the building manager’s office.

  • Rhys

    Actually, in British English, it is perfectly acceptable to use ‘persons’ in a sentence, it’s rather formal however as opposed to the more commonly used ‘people’.

  • Braindegauss

    To me, it makes perfectly sense that person is 1, people is an uncountable general group, whereas persons is a specific count.

    So “there were 5 persons” and “there were many people”.

    I read somewhere that this was intended but never picked up by general public so everyone uses people for countable and noncountable nowadays.

    The reason why legal texts often still refer to persons is probably because those types of texts tend to change less with time.. nobody except in church would they use words like “thou shalt not” or “who maketh ..”

    Fact is, language is never static.. new words are created and old words are lost, and grammar gets simplified. Not sure if it’s because humans are lazy, or it’s an evolution of efficiency, where we continue to draw more meaning from fewer words by our contextual understanding.

  • Drepa Rugl

    I have always understood “persons” to be appropriate when referring to people’s bodies. For example: The officers always keep the sidearm hidden on their persons.

    This is completely different from the explanation above and I didn’t notice anyone else bring it up.

    Also, I disagree about the distinguishing between a specified number or not.
    The plural of “person” is “people” regardless of whether or not we know how many there are.

  • Pelon

    From a legal point of view, “person” and “individual” have different meanings. A person can be an individual, a corporation, a trust, or other legal entity recognized under the law. An individual is a human being.

  • Olatunji

    I am of the opinion that we should not allow the ‘supplanting’ argument to consent to any wrong use of words. We should insist on the proper use of words, otherwise, the number of those who use a given word in a particular way would become the criterion for determining its correctness. It would then follow logically that there is no basis for attending any school to study English or any other language. All we need to do is to find out how the majority in a population use a word and follow suit. It is wrong to accept the word people as a perfect synonym on persons. Nowadays it is not uncommon to hear someone saying ‘two people’ instead of two persons. If we allow the use of ‘two people,’ then why don’t we allow ‘one people’. The meaning of ‘one people’ obviously show it is a plural noun, while the word ‘person’ is singular. Hence we can correctly say ‘one person, two persons and so on.

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