People versus Persons

By Daniel Scocco - 1 minute read

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Felix asks, “I was just wondering when it was appropriate to use people as opposed to persons.”

There is some confusion regarding the two terms, especially because their meaning and usage suffered a mutation along the centuries. Both derive from Latin, but from different words.

Person derives from persona, which refers to an individual. People, on the other hand, derives from populum, and it refers to a group of persons sharing a culture or social environment.

Person is a singular form, and its plural is persons. Over the time, however, many writers started to adopt people as the plural form of person, and nowadays it is widely accepted. Notice that legal and very formal texts still use persons as the plural form.

One distinction that was proposed was to use persons as long as there was a countable number of individuals (e.g., 67 persons left the school) and people when such a number was large and indefinite (e.g., the people left the stadium quickly). The rule did not catch on, though, and some writers still use people even when there is a definite or small number of individuals.

Finally, people can also be used in the plural form (e.g., the peoples of Asia) when it refers to the different cultural groups that live in a certain region.

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62 Responses to “People versus Persons”

  • Maeve

    Daniel,
    A really interesting post.

    I can see why the rule didn’t catch on. It may stem from the legal use, but “persons” seems to me to have a somewhat stilted and snooty connotation. I picture a society woman in an old Marx Brothers film, nose in the air, demanding to know “Who are those persons?”

  • Daniel

    Indeed Maeve!

  • Felix

    Interesting. I didn’t know that peoples was actually a word.

    So in any case, there is no real distinction between persons and people other than the pronunciation?

  • Daniel

    Yes there are, as explained, but if you are worried about which one you should use as the plural of person, than yes you can choose the one you prefer.

  • 60 in 3

    So would it be the people or peoples of the United States? I would think people since it refers to a single nation, but the name of the US implies multiple types of people (one for each state), or am I being too nit picky?

    Gal

  • Daniel

    Gal, probably you could say both, but they mean different things.

  • Tyree

    I think I understand this. In Gal’s example, the people of the United States would mean the general population of the nation and the peoples of the United States would refer to the different cultural groups within the United States?

    That being said, would the use of persons as opposed to people just be more of a style preference? For example, the persons of the Christian Rite would mean the same thing as the people of the Christian Rite?

  • yasmin

    i really wanted to to improbe my grammar nd writing im quiet good student in my class i was reding on bengali medium but now i have to face real life i mean the university life life which is on english i know english but for my lackness of grammar nd wrighting knowledge i always used to fail now but thanks to god i am not in a university now i am trying to get admission in islamic university .whisch is very tough if i dont know engliush very well please help me to keeep me out from here.it will be pleasure if u do it as soon as possible

  • yasmin

    i think wrigting is quiet tough if we dont wright every day .we must write on any topic every day then must give it to teacher to correct it on this way we can improve our wrighting

  • Jon

    You gave the example above of “the people left the stadium quickly” as something that is ‘large and indefinite.’ You should know that the size of the mass of persons has absolutely nothing to do with the grammatical form assigned to it. That would be like saying that the noun ‘stars’ should be amount, rather than number, because the number of them is ‘large and indefinite.’

  • Daniel Scocco

    Jon, where did you read the claim that the mass of persons had anything to do with the grammatical form?

    The article mentions that this was a proposed distinction, but it did not catch on. No one said it was a grammatical rule.

  • nova

    My proffessor always tell to ignore “persons” everytime I read it

    on a book or whatever! She’s an American lady and she thinks that

    it’s not right to say “persons”, “people” would be better.

    Thank you Daniel

  • nova

    Correct myself:

    “tell me”

    🙂

  • PreciseEdit

    Nova–you have just experienced the reason why many professors should be ignored everytime they speak.

    Rules? Probably not. However, these terms do have slightly different usages.

    Here’s our guide:
    Person/persons–refers to an individual or individuals. [Your Honor, these four persons are innocent.]
    People–refers to the group. [The people of China are as diverse as species of fish in the sea. The people in the back are guilty.]

    The question, therefore, is whether you are referring to individuals as separate entities or as a collective. That being said, we tend to use “people” in most cases as this is acceptable in nearly every situation. Most people won’t mind, though a few persons might.

  • nova

    Oh! got it now 🙂 Thank you really for your response!

    regards

  • xanny (Q.C, Philippines)

    Wow.. I think this explanation makes sense the most. There was a proposition that “persons” be used if the number was countable. But still I felt uncomfortable to use it when refering to a small group. I teach basic English to those who want to learn it as their second language and the grammar book that I use says that “persons” shouldn’t be used to refer to more than one individual (Basic Grammar in Use).. This is very enlightening. Thanks a lot!

    “The question, therefore, is whether you are referring to individuals as SEPARATE ENTITIES or as a COLLECTIVE. That being said, we tend to use “people” in most cases as this is ACCEPTABLE in nearly EVERY SITUATION. Most people won’t mind, though a few persons might.

  • Papa Pat

    Some of the more “progressive” churches frown severely at the use of the word “people” in virtually any setting or context. They feel they must “affirm the personhood of all persons”, whatever that might mean (gag).

    One person.
    Two (or more) people.

    Period

  • Rupert Tansley

    I do a lot of translations and I’m currently using “persons” in a document because it enhances the feeling of respect for the individuals in what could otherwise be seen as an amorphous group, in this case “disabled persons”. Thus we cover ourselves from being seen to regard “the disabled” as a faceless mass, but rather as a collection of individuals with rights and identities.

    So I’m sorry to those people who feel that the plural of person is always people. You are and will always remain an amorphous mass of faceless individuals. Ha!

  • Luz (Argentina)

    Thank you Daniel! Your explanation was very clear, mainly because of your description of the etymology of both words, which I found really useful and clarifying.

  • Brooklyn_francis

    I was reading a Wikipedia article on “Uncontrolled decompression” and I read this sentence: The term uncontrolled decompression here refers to the unplanned depressurisation of vessels that are occupied by people, for example an aircraft cabin at high altitude….

    My mind immediately felt that “people” is the wrong word here, and that “persons” would be the correct one. (I have NEVER thought about the different usages of these words before). I think that my instinct said this because we use the word person in two ways: to denote an individual (e.g.,”He’s a nice person.”) and to denote our bodies (e.g., “I had the keys on my person all the while!”). The intersection of these usages suggests to me that the proper usage here would be persons.

  • BK

    Ended up here from Googling for which to use: Persons or People. It seems that nowadays the use of ‘people’ is generally accepted as the plural form of person. So now I can use it with an ease of mind. 🙂

  • Michael Chambers Heer

    I have used the word “persons” as part of my vocabulary since middle school. I had an English teacher from 5th through 8th grade that was a grammar fanatic. Every so often a friend will say to me, “Don’t you mean people?” I usually respond, “No, I meant to say persons.”

    The general rule of thumb that I use would be to eliminate the additional individuals in a sentence and listen to how it reads.

    For example:
    “John and Ann are my favorite persons at the party.”
    If you eliminate John, the sentence would read, “Ann is my favorite person at the party,” not, “Ann is my favorite people at the party.”

    It’s just like the difference between “I” and “me.” You might hear people say, “The coach played John, Ann, and I in the last quarter.” This may sound correct, but it isn’t. If you eliminate John and Ann, the sentence would read, “The coach played I in the last quarter.” Everyone would recognize that using “I” is incorrect and that “me” would be the proper choice.

    Since people is a singular noun, you would use it in cases where you are talking about a group that collectively make a single unit. For example: “Of the people in the room, John and Ann are my favorite persons.” The people in the room are a group. John and Ann are two individuals that can be separated from the group.

  • Ed P

    I do feel the examples given by Michael seems to be rather awkward (and perhaps wrongly reasoned).

    “Of the people in the room, John and Ann are my favourite […].”
    This sentence can do without the ‘persons’, especially since ‘people’ is considered the plural of ‘person’ nowadays, even though it has a different etymology. So, it is *not* a singular noun.

    For the same reason, even if you take away one of the persons to become “… Ann is my favourite person”, it would not be wrong to use people initially, since that is the accepted plural noun!

    Consider a sentence such as:
    “Of the mice in the cage, Whitey and Blackie are my favourite (mice)”
    and “… Blackie is my favourite mouse.” I doubt you would use ‘mouses’ as a plural of ‘mouse’, even if ‘mice’ does not look like it is a plural of ‘mouse’.

    Anyway, if ‘people’ is meant to be used as a singular noun, it cannot be used in the sentence “Of the people in the room…” because it refers to a population or a group of people sharing a culture (i.e. similar to ethnic group, race etc.).

  • Papa Pat

    “Of the people in the room, John and Ann are my favorites.” It doesn’t have anything to do with the “I/me” example.

    People are beings; “persons” doesn’t enhance this, nor does “people” degrade them.

    When you’re talking about ONE individual person, then it’s “person”. Two or more, it’s “people”.

  • 1Niner40says

    The understanding I got from the reading is that when referring to people as individuals/ as a whole you would use the word people. If on the other hand you are referring to a group such as a group of workers in lets say a hospital setting your sentence would read “The goal of these meetings are to reach a common goal of excellent patient care and a happy work environment for everyone, not point the finger and single each other out and blame the issues on one person or group of persons.” (such as Dr’s Nurses and techs)

  • Papa Pat

    “…one person or group of persons” STILL sounds stilted and affected, like the speaker or writer is trying to tiptoe across a minefield of delicate sensibilities and not upset anyone. I’d probably write that sentence “The goal of these meetings is [not “are”] to reach a common goal of excellent patient care and happy work environment for everyone; not to blame the doctors, nurses and techs for problem issues.”

  • Tom

    I ended up on this site because I was writing “… the first person finished quickly, and the second and third people were slower…”, but that seemed wrong.

    I considered “… the second and third persons …”, because to be precise I was shortening “the second person and the third person”, hence persons.

    The latter corresponds to that suggested by the host of this site, so I’m going with the second version. (It also matches Michael’s approach, and I think the I/me is a good analogy.)

    But as Daniel acknowledges, it’s not cut and dried. And to contradict my plan, I’ve often wondered if it’s better to be correct but a reader is likely to believe I’m wrong, or to use the more generally accepted but incorrect choice!

  • Amad

    Well this is fascinating. Ive often wondered about this myself. I always tell my students “one person, two or more people” and now i see how wrong I was. Persons CAN be used and in fact should be use in a lot of cases where people does sound “weird”. Explaining this to ESL students would be too hard though. any suggestions on how to do it?

  • Papa Pat

    How about:

    “The first person finished quickly; the second and third were slower.”

    The sentence is obviously talking about people in some sort of race or competition. If you identify the first one as a “person”, the listener or reader won’t expect the second and third to be anything but other (slower) people.

  • suckaMC

    To everyone that is arguing about this…

    Did you not read the effing article?

    Write or say whichever you like… they are both “correct.”

  • Ariel

    No, you need to use persons with a specific number. Don’t ya’ll be teach’n slang now.

  • Papa Pat

    “Seven persons died in the crash.”

    …or…

    “Seven people died in the crash.”

    I’ll stick with “people”. There are those who believe this is somehow “insensitive” or otherwise poor writing. There seem to be many more, however, who agree with me.

    Now if the crash had involved only one fatality, then yes: “One person died …”.

  • bobo

    if am refering to someone,can i use ;people like you in some cases

  • Papa Pat

    I’m not quite sure what the question is, Bobo. I don’t see any examples of the word “people” with a semicolon immediately prefixed to it.

    Can you give us an example?

  • Giveback

    I think this is what I was taught. I must confess though that I am no language rule guru. However, I have learned some important things.
    If it is one person, then it is person. If it is more than one but less than seven it is persons. If it is seven or more it is people. Also, if the number is identifiable you can use persons but it is still better to use people if that number exceeds seven. When referring to a group we use people regardless if there are subsets of groups within the group. This eliminates the word “peoples”. I have never heard of that word. The example should always read, “The people of Asia” or to add clarification “The many people of Asia”. This is one of the rules that JUST IS.

  • Papa Pat

    Why is seven the dividing line? I don’t think I’ve ever heard of this “rule”.

    To say that there are “two persons” in one room and “eight people” in the room next door would be sort of confusing; what makes the two different from the eight?

    One person; two people.

  • benjer3

    I think this is a perfect example of how our language is evolving. If people (or persons, whatever works for you) from medieval England were here, they would think our grammar is absolutely horrendous, not to mention the meanings we have applied to words such as terrific, dreadful, and awesome. However, that does not mean we are wrong.

    The purpose of language is to be able to communicate our thoughts and our feelings. The purpose is to be understood. If one is in a scholarly or formal environment, he uses what is considered to be proper grammar, so he can be understood and his words respected. If you are with friends, you don’t talk with perfect, drawn out sentences; you talk in a comfortable way because that is how you are understood–that is how you can really express yourself, and how others know that you mean what you say. If you try to mix them up, people don’t understand you–they can’t understand you–because you aren’t talking in their language.

    As for the persons-people dilemma, I wish we could easily use them as was suggested by the main article. I personally like the effect “persons” should have on emphasizing a group of individuals. However, if I used it “properly” in my everyday language (or in this case, perhaps even in semi-formal settings), it would be like me saying to you, “The 9/11 attack was terrific.” Therefore, I must resort to the common, current language and say “people.”

    Of course, I wish I could use these words that have so much more meaning in them than our everyday language. It would be so much easier to make a point, to express my feelings exactly as I feel them, to speak at a much deeper level. But the truth of the matter is I wouldn’t be understood. We don’t have a perfect language, so we must, and we can, make ourselves understood with the language we have, in a way we can be understood.

  • wachid

    just use “persons” whenever you know exactly the number of human get involved in certain activity or you want to put more intention in your sentence/statement. otherwise you can use “people” to refer a group of human, but you didn’t know the number of human get involved, or the number doesn’t play a specific role in your statement.

    both are correct, and the application just depends on the context of the statement.

    also, the word “persons” is not an “old-fashioned” words.. (someone told me this silly thing tonight).. he.. he..

  • Melissa

    This is a really great explanation.

  • Chris

    So, instead of “third person plural” could we say “third people”?

  • Dave

    My interpretation in modern English is that ‘people’ should really be treated as the collective noun of a group of ‘persons’. These sentences illustrate my point: “The people have spoken”. “All persons should vote”. “He stated that he was but one person among the people”.

  • James

    As a native speaker of American English with many years of writing experience, I feel that “persons” is usually regarded as formal language, in the USA, and it sometimes seems, as Maeve wrote, “somewhat stilted and snooty connotation.”

    Because of that, “persons” is sometimes used by comedians when they portray a person who is trying to sound smart, or sound overly legalistic. Also, it is sometimes used by people who believe they must say “persons” because the situation calls for either formal language or for a need to sound “official.”

    Did you notice how I just used “people” in the preceding sentence? I wouldn’t ordinarily use “persons” there. The word “people” is not less formal, but “persons” almost always stands apart as a more formal word choice. I believe it’s appropriate to use “people” in my sentence, but I am open to opinion on that choice. I’m completely confident that my choice of “people” is suitable, however.

    I face the choice between persons and people now, as I write some instructions for users of classroom computers. The original text used “persons,” but I want my text to be more friendly and simple:

    “Please remember to log out of a computer, when you are finished using it, to prevent unauthorized people from misusing your identity or interfering with your work.”

  • Heath-Daniel

    It’s more a question of the ignorance of man… in substance (fact), person is derived of the latin (i.e Roman) persona “person, character in a play, the mask of the actor”

    Most importantly is that person though synonomous to man, a person is foreclosed to parity with man

    because man is, either male or female (NB. a unisex term), the self image creation of ‘ĕlôhıym (God), thus is not nor can not ever be equal to nor lower in status/standing than any corporation.

    however the choice is upto each and every man, as in gives his/her consent (exercise of freewill) to be.

  • Eni

    With or without face.., but I have always been taught that “people” is the plural form of “person”, and “persons” used in pl. is the archaic way.
    Anyways, as some of you have suggested, professors are not to be always listened to….

    But let’s work our way backwards. What is then the singular of people?

    And with all due respect to the disabled, what’s wrong with calling them simply individuals?

  • Louie

    really, this blog is just amazing!!!

  • Lana

    UNBELIEVABLE PEOPLE!!!!!! What is going on with our English grammar?

    I sat down with my ten year old, 5th grade daughter last evening and together we read from her…GET THIS….United States Social Studies book. Time and time again, the text used the word “peoples.”
    Here is an example:
    Many of the peoples migrated to the new land.

    I was taught that person is the singular form, people is the plural form…. and then you get into possessive and possessive plural. As far as I am concerned the only time that people should have an “s” on the end of it, is when it is being used in the possessive form.

    I should also add that the same is true for person, also. The correct plural form of person is people.

    I just wonder, since this text was written in a United States Social Studies book,
    when are they going to change, “WE THE PEOPLE” to “WE THE PEOPLES”??!!??

  • Lana

    WOW how about… “WE THE PERSONS” –The Constitution of The United States…WE THE PEOPLE…

    I am certainly not over this subject yet.

    The thing that gets me, is that the generation in school today are being taught that it’s okay to use persons or peoples.

    Years down the road, it is going to be accepted as proper and okay language to use. To me, it is APPALLING. Our tax dollars were actually used to purchase these text books and now our children are stuck using them. At least I have peace of mind knowing that I will correct my children on what they are reading.

    By the way…
    To all of you who think that using persons to replace people because of the feeling that using people somehow gives them a faceless, meaningless identity (such as in disabled persons)….

    WRONG… Like I said before and I am going to say it again…when will they change “WE THE PEOPLE” to “WE THE PEOPLES” or “WE THE PERSONS” !!??!!

  • Audrey

    Anyone that uses the word “persons” sounds like an idiot. I don’t care if it was used many years ago… it’s people not persons. You sound like a dumb ass saying “There are many persons in that car”.

  • Patrick

    Bless English teachers.

    I have gone through many changes over time from my English teahers to my private readings. My current position is this:

    Persons: the plural of person. Use when the group is small, can be counted, are know to each other. E.g. five persons travelling in Dad’s car. (They areknown to each other). Five people travelling in a bus. (They are not known to each other).

    People : Collective noun for a single large amorphous group, the individual are not known to each other. E.g. A crowd of people at the bus stop. Five persons from my class got the scholarship.

    I recognize a lot of persons just use people regardless. Could I have said a lot of people use ‘people’ in their grammer. I do not think so. But I am still learning.

    Let the debate rage on.

    What is important is that there be some consensus as words change their meaning in different locations and circumstances. Word meanings do change with time. Consensus is preferred otherwise we will speak to each other and get different information from the same discussion.

  • carolyn

    I’m writing the sentence, “she is one of the most charming and lovely persons (or people?), I have ever met. Which is correct, or should I use, “individuals?”

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