People versus Persons

By Daniel Scocco

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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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63 Responses to “People versus 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”.

  • Sofia

    so, is it wrong to say “persons”?

  • 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.

  • 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?

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Ron

    to Matt, it doesn’t matter how you feel regarding the rule of grammar. Rules are rules. Would you say the same for tooth and foot.

  • Tonk

    English is the language spoken by the English. Or more commonly these days, the language spoken by English speakers. The rules come from (or should come from) English as it is spoken, rather than some retroactive forcing of rules from other languages (such as Latin, French or Greek). At least that is what an English professor said recently on Radio 4 – how refereshing.

  • Gabriel Mervin

    It really just depends on your style, Tonk had a great point, rules shouldn’t always be retroactively forced, though sometimes you can or should. Octopus is an English word, originating from Greek. It is an English word. English plural rules state that the plural should be octopuses, but some people want to get all fancy and use octopi. This is a style choice, both are accepted today. On that note, if you’re a grammar nazi, or you just want to confuse or bother friends of yours that don’t take seriously, don’t use octopi. Octopi is simply their attempt at applying archaic grammar laws to an imported word, but note that octopus is Greek. Latin plurals do in fact change -us endings into -i endings, however, this is not a Latin word, it’s Greek, so the -us ending becomes -odes. The plural of octopus is octopuses, and if you apply dated rules from the language of origin, Greek, you get octopodes. Now go flex on your friends with your superfluous knowledge of superannuated obsolete grammatical regulations. Then you can intimidate them with your sesquipedalian tendency to employ polysyllabic loquaciousness intermittently among typical conversational dialogue pretentiously, with aspirations of inducing inquietude into their craniums, compounded by your frequent commissioning of tag-along tactics including onomatopoeia, excluding, quite nearly banishing simplistic monosyllabic terminology commonly accepted by the masses, reinforcing the intrinsically verbomanic image unnervingly fabricated solely for the purpose of complication. Then ask if they like big words too.

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