People versus Persons

By Daniel Scocco

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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60 Responses to “People versus Persons”

  • Matt

    OK.
    If person become persons, then man becomes mans ???
    Like if I know exact number of man, I can use MANS.
    I am sorry if I am wrong but it is just how I feel.

  • Christian W.

    Not to be a snoot, but the easiest way to get the answer is to look at style guides. For American English, that means APA, MLA, and Chicago depending on the purpose of your writing. The different style guides are used by varying institutions.

    APA says: Always use “people” as the plural of “person”
    MLA says: Always use “people” as the plural of “person”
    Chicago says: Use “people” as the plural of “person” unless you mean “individuals” and not “group”.

    Have your pick at which style guide best suites you. However, please stick with it. If you do a search online, you RARELY see the word “persons” used in native English speaking countries except in legal contexts. Most other search results will be for countries where English is a second language, like the Philippines, India, and Pakistan where “persons” is still in use by their media.

  • Papa Pat

    Can’t you just hear it….?

    “Persons…
    Persons who need persons
    Are the luckiest persons in the world.”

    “Sorta gets you right here.” …Capt. James T. Kirk

  • Papa Pat

    Churchill’s book about the “English-Speaking Peoples” uses the word “peoples” exactly right. The book is about the disparate groups (Celts, Britons, Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Franks, Goths, etc) for whom English became the common language. Each of those groups is, in the present sense, a people: Celtic people, Saxon people, and so on.

    Most of the people comprising these peoples (correct plural) became those “English-Speaking Peoples” in Churchill’s great book.

  • kay

    Just one individual, person, two or more, people. One mouse, two mice, not three mouses. Lets not mix feelings with grammar to change a rule, then eventually you will end up changing them all only because you want to think you are smarter than the rest. What happened to words like VCR or Walkman? Language evolves, and so must our capability to adapt. Belive me, in 5 years or less, everybody will be using person and people, but if you want to sound pompous and old fashioned then go ahead.

  • RickC

    Maeve (1st comment) postulated that: “… 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?”

    Well, that sounds like a personal bias to me. They were persons. I think that “Who are those people?” sounds even more snooty and stilted. The use of “persons” actually sounds rather respectful and demure. It’s your depiction of the nose in the air which infers snootiness.

    I’m not against using people as the plural for person. I do it all the time and either way in any context is okay with me. However, I’ll assume the role of Devil’s Advocate for the remainder of this discussion. Feel free to disagree. I’d be surprised if people didn’t …

    If a public speaker is talking to an assemblage of persons that have been cited for heroism and exceptional service to their individual communities and if the speaker wishes to honor each and every one of them for their individual efforts it is most inappropriate to clumped them all together in a singular mass that is commonly referred to as PEOPLE. He might say, “You’re all good persons.” The speaker would never say, “You’re all good people.” It diminishes the praise to the level of condescension.

    Why must some persons completely disregard the rules merely because they and so many others got it wrong in the first place? Why should I accept their collective bastardization of the English language as correct just because it sounds less stilted and less snooty to them? BTW, look up what stilted means. Using persons rather than people is in no way, shape, or form lofty, formal, stiff or pompous. Using people rather than persons makes you look uneducated as if you use your and you’re incorrectly. Sure, it’s widely accepted that using people for more than one person is okay and a common notation of usage in online dictionaries but that’s like putting ketchup on a filet mignon steak. It might taste delicious but it’s still so very, very wrong!

    And before people (yes, here I’m using people correctly as a group or category) tell me that their teacher or professor told them that it was okay to use people rather than persons, somebody should send them back to school for testing. Then once more for retesting. Not every teacher was a straight A student ( if you catch my drift). How many of your teachers were average scholars? Most, I’d wager. I respect the profession. I just don’t think that many teachers today do. Many cannot pass the same tests that they give their students. They just feed the tests into a machine and it grades them – no muss, no fuss. Professors don’t even touch the papers. They have student assistants to do it for them.

    It’s all about the quality of language my friend. And it is suffering. If we were to rely on what sounds correct then every grammar book and standard dictionary would look like the typical slang dictionary.

    When I went to school, I didn’t learn that the word people was the plural of person. Even in every dictionary that I’ve ever read it states that persons is the plural of person. Not one says people. People meant a group of persons, among other definitions. I learned that the plural of person IS persons. Why is that so confusing? Didn’t they pay attention is school? Or maybe that’s the way they heard it being used in their community and it stuck like flies to sticky fly paper.

    Of the five persons standing at the bus stop in the rain only 2 used umbrellas. Five persons got on the bus. NOT five people. The people on the bus were shaken after it rear-ended the pickup truck. I sat next to 3 persons on the bus that I knew. The bus driver was one of the few persons that I knew on the bus. I didn’t know any of the people on the bus. The bus crash killed 18 persons. A bus load of people got killed in the bus crash. A crowd of people watched as a busload of people perished in a fiery explosion. The sheer number of persons arriving to gawk at the bus accident and not to help was appalling.

    When they are individuals, a quantity, or all of my friends THEN they are persons. When they are indistinguishable as a combined mass then they’re people (or a mob depending on their mood). While many persons (including the venerable Merriam-Webster dictionary) may assume the right to use “persons” and “people” as they see fit that doesn’t make it correct. Webster must be turning in his grave – unless he hasn’t stopped since the International Astronomical Union redefined planets in 2006 and reclassified Pluto as a dwarf planet and all those hard copies had to be changed.

    However, I realize that language isn’t static. It changes with the culture that uses it and is often defined by it. Today’s so-called text speak is the best evidence. UR has replaced you’re, LOL has replaced laughing out loud and so on. Smiley faces and emoticons have replaced emotional descriptions. It’s a rather recent phenomenon. Who can tell what this will do to the English language in a decade or two? We’re a highly visual society. Maybe in the near future we’ll have computers hardwired to our brains linked to our clothing that instantly displays whatever we want to say or feel. No need to say it. Display it.

    Most of us tend to write the same way we talk. When I talk I don’t always follow the rules but I use colloquialisms instead so that I don’t seem out of place or that I’m not ridiculed by some hick for saying “I feel well” when he knows for darned shure that’s it’s “I feel gud.”

    And I say persons rather than people even if some snooty person thinks that it sounds stilted! Is saying that I feel well rather than good considered stilted? Is using correct rather than right stilted? Is saying that you’re a moron rather than you’re an idiot stilted? Well, actually, those two words are interchangeable.

    Finally, no amount of rational thought or loads of evidence will ever convince the proponents of “people” rather than “persons” to change their position on the subject so it’s a moot argument anyway. The best any of us can do is to run in the other direction if the topic ever comes up during polite conversation because just as religion and politics polarize their factions, there’s bound to be a fight.

  • Estefanía

    I am a Spanish girl. I have been studying English for ages and I was always told that the plural of “person” is “people”. I was absolutely convinced that “persons” is wrong, so I am surprised to read this article. Why don’t English teachers explain that?

  • ankur

    I have exactly the same question of carolyn. Though in this case persons sounds better to me. The common quality of a group of individuals helps to distinguish them. I don’t agree with the logic of countability.
    I prefer to write:

    four people, two people etc.
    but
    one of the most popular persons in the locality.

    Although the number is unknown in the last sentence.
    Still, I am not absolutely sure about it…pls comment.

  • Sofia

    so, is it wrong to say “persons”?

  • Mirek

    I am not a native speaker. Nevertheless, did W.Churchill get his English wrong ? His Nobel prize winning book title is “A History of the English-Speaking Peoples”.

  • 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?”

  • 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.

  • 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”.

  • 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” !!??!!

  • 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”??!!??

  • Louie

    really, this blog is just amazing!!!

  • 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?

  • 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.

  • 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.”

  • 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”.

  • Chris

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

  • Melissa

    This is a really great explanation.

  • 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..

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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

    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?

  • bobo

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

  • 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 …”.

  • Ariel

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

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