People vs. persons

In modern English, people is the de facto plural of person. People and person have separate Latin origins, and they came to English at different times by different paths, but there are examples of people used as a plural of person from as early as the 14th century. Persons was the original plural, and it is possible to find examples of its use in all types of writing up to the present, but it prevails only in a few contexts, most notably law and law enforcement, and in a few common phrases (e.g., persons of interest, displaced persons, missing persons). Elsewhere, it usually gives way to people.

There is an old usage prescription holding that people applies to uncountable groups of individuals (e.g., Times Square was packed with people) while persons applies to groups that are easily counted (e.g., there were four persons on the balcony). But there is no good reason for this distinction, and in any case it is not consistently borne out in real-world usage.


In some of the houses there are just a few blankets, and it is not uncommon for four people to share one. [New York Times]

Between 1980 and 2002, 16,556 refugees and displaced persons were resettled in New Zealand under the Refugee Quota Programme. [New Zealand Herald]

Hundreds of people are reported to have been killed since government troops began pounding known strongholds of opposition groups. [BBC News]

He also talks of Susan’s missing persons case and facing ridicule from many members of the media and public. [Chicago Tribune]

An outbreak of salmonella which struck 68 people across the U.S. originated at Taco Bell, it has emerged. [Daily Mail]

12 thoughts on “People vs. persons”

  1. I’ve always thought of the distinction not as one of countability, but of individuality, similar to other collective nouns (e.g. “the team is playing well” collectively but “the team are experienced” individually).

    So, if “people are upset with the government” implies that people in general are upset, but if “persons are upset with the government” that implies only that some number of individuals are upset but that may or may not reflect the attitude of the general population.

    It’s certainly true that the distinction is not typically reflected in modern speech and writing, but I disagree that there is no good reason for it.

  2. People is the plural of person. “Peoples” refers to various groups of people, such as “the peoples of Asia.” I don’t know where “persons” came from. It seems to have arisen during a time in which “person” was deemed less gender-specific than “man” or “woman.” For example, “She was chairperson of the meeting.” After that, people generally started using “chairpersons” as plural, and from there, “persons” seems to have arisen.

  3. I’ve found (without ever having been formally instructed to do so) that I use person, persons, people, and peoples as follows:

    PERSON: a single human being
    “In the United States, a PERSON who practices law is called either an ‘attorney’ or a ‘lawyer’, is typically addressed as ‘counselor’, has the title ‘esquire’, and has earned the degree ‘Juris Doctor’.”

    PERSONS: mutiple human beings, each of whom is the sole member of a unique group
    “A respite camp is designed to give the families of severely handicapped PERSONS a break from the often challenging job of caring for them.”

    PEOPLE: multiple human beings, all of whom belong to the same group
    “An average American family typically consists of between 3 and 6 people.”

    PEOPLES: multiple groups each consisting of multiple human beings
    “According to certain classification systems, native American PEOPLES comprise over 80 individual tribes.”

    • My question is why do you and others use “persons” instead of “people” when referring to a member of a “unique group?” I’d like to know if the meaning of “people” or significantly different from “persons.” Are there implied meanings attached to either? How do you and others define a “unique group?”

      • In the example for PERSONS given above, multiple handicapped individuals collectively make up a plural group (i.e. campers) and would be appropriately referred to as “people,” except for the additional specification that each handicapped individual also occupies a singular role within a subgroup (i.e. handicapped individual in his or her respective family). Admittedly, this example would be muddied if two handicapped siblings from the same family were both to attend the camp (I don’t have an answer for how I would handle such a situation grammatically and appears to represent a hole in the logical theory I use to define varying degrees of plurality).

        • Thank you for explaining. I am in radio news and use more conversational language when writing. I usually run across “persons” when college officials talk about policies. And that makes sense to me because it is formal and legal language.

  4. I have seen both of them,in loads of books,signs etc, but people just sounds better. Although,since persons is right too,it shouldn’t be false in a test,os an essay. Teachers should know that!


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