Persons vs. People?

Persons and people are plural nouns for “person,” although “people” is the correct word for everyday English. For formal or legal writing, use “persons.”

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What is the difference between persons and people?

If you’re talking about a group of people, should you use “persons” or “people”? Both terms are a plural form of person, but English speakers don’t always use them for the same circumstances:  

  • People is the most common plural form of “person.”
  • Persons is an archaic, plural form of “person” and often found in legal writing. 

What is a person, anyways?

To understand persons or people, you have to have a basic understanding of the word “person.” In general, the word person is a singular noun for any living human, body, character, or personality. For instance, a “nice person” is one pleasant individual. But if you’re describing more than one nice person, the correct term to use is “nice people.” 

A large source of confusion between people and persons involves legalese (i.e., the language of law). For legal contexts, a person is any entity recognized by the government, whether it’s a human, partnership, organization, or corporation. 

What does persons mean?

The noun persons is the plural form of person and defined within formal or legal writing as ‘an unspecified individual.’ 

Sentence examples:

  • “The lawyer refused to show Congress the whole number of persons in each State.” 
  • “Investigators are looking to interview two persons of interest.” 
  • “Any persons found in violation will be subject to arrest.” 
  • “The hospital will not release any names out of respect for persons found positive.” 

Synonyms

Beings, citizens, characters, entities, fellowmen, humans, human beings, individuals, mortals, neighbors, organizations, residents, souls.

Etymology of persons

The word person or persons entered Middle English from Old French persone and Latin persona. According to Lexico, the initial definition of Latin persona was ‘actor’s mask’ or ‘character,’ but the noun eventually took the meaning of ‘human being.’

What does people mean?

The word people is a plural noun that means ‘all human beings’ or ‘a group of human beings,’ especially when “the people” contrast to those who govern them (the elite). 

Sentence examples:

  • “New York is home to over 19 million people.” 
  • “We have the support of the people.” 
  • “Princess Diana was called ‘The People’s Princess.’” 
  • People pleasing is a bad habit to get into.” 
  • “The hackers forced millions of people to log out of their profiles at once.” 
  • “Argumentum ad populum is an argument that allegedly ‘appeals to the people.’”

The noun people (sometimes capitalized as “Peoples) can also represent members of a specific community, region, or ethnic identity, where we can treat the noun as singular or plural. For example, 

  • “Indigenous Peoples’ Day occurs on the second Monday of October.” 
  • “We enjoyed learning about the Indigenous Peoples of Canada.” 
  • “The leader swore to bring justice to all nations and peoples.” 

In a similar sense, English speakers may also use the phrase “my people” to represent anyone who descends from the same ancestor or anyone that supports the speaker in question. For example, 

  • “Those are my people.” 
  • “My people will be in touch with your people.” 

Synonyms

[1] Citizens, commoners, community, crowd, folks, herd, Homo sapiens, humanity, humankind, individuals, inhabitants, mob, mortals, nation, plebeians, populace, population, public, residents, society, souls, subjects, the human race, world. 

[2] Blood, clan, family, folks, kin, kinfolk, lineage, race, tribe.

Etymology of people

Unlike the noun persons, Middle English adopted “people” from Anglo-Norman French “poeple,” which comes from Latin Populus (or ‘populace’). 

FAQ: How to use people vs. persons in a sentence?

Is people a collective noun?

Another tricky aspect of people vs. persons involves the debate of collective nouns, which describe a group of things as singular entities. Band, class, crowd, and squad are all collective nouns that describe groups of people.

The word “people” certainly acts as a collective noun because it can reference many or all humans at once. However, most plural nouns have similar capacities, such as “puppies” or “crows.” The difference is that a group of puppies is a “litter,” and a group of crows is a “murder.” Whether you speak British or American English, a group of people is not “a people.” 

What if we use “people” or “peoples” for specific groups of people?

English grammar defines “people” as a plural noun, regardless of context. Where many writers are confused is when we use “people” or “peoples” to reference members of a specific ethnic group, community, society, or nation. In this case, we can use singular “people” or plural “peoples.” For example, 

  • “Those are my people.”
  • “The Indigenous Peoples of Canada.” 
  • “We are the People.” 
  • “She was a mediator between nations and peoples.” 
  • “Our country is home to diverse peoples.” 

Can we use “persons” to describe specific groups of people?

Unless you’re a lawmaker or writing about law enforcement, we suggest avoiding “persons” to describe specific groups of people. In general, the word “persons” references groups of people in a non-identifiable manner. For example, 

  • “The Displaced Persons Act of 1948 allowed European refugees to enter the United States.”
  • “The police department’s Missing Persons Unit helps track missing persons or runaways.” 
  • “Officers questioned two persons of interest.” 

Should we use persons vs. people differently for countable and uncountable nouns?

Early grammar rules once made the argument that we should use “persons” for countable nouns and “people” for uncountable nouns. Under this logic, we would use “persons” for any group of people with countable populations and “people” for an unknown ‘number of individuals.’ For example, 

  • “Bring this food to the persons outside.”
  • “Bring this food to the people outside.” 

Garner’s Modern English Usage describes these outdated rules differently by explaining how “‘people’ is general,” while “‘persons’ is specific” and better suited for a small group (Garner 682). 

The good news is that Modern English grammar has not enforced these rules since the mid 19th century, so there’s no need to fret between people vs. persons in casual circumstances. The only time you’ll need to use “persons” is for formal or legal contexts.

Additional reading for persons vs. people

If you enjoy learning how culture and government affect English grammar, check out The Word Counter’s lessons on subjects like: 

Test Yourself!

Test how well you understand the difference between persons vs. people with the following multiple-choice questions. 

  1. True or false: American English treats “people” as a collective noun. 
    a. True
    b. False
  2. The singular form of “people” is ___________. 
    a. Population
    b. Human
    c. Person
    d. A number of humans
  3. English “person” or “persons” originated from which word? 
    a. Old French persone
    b. Latin populus
    c. Latin persona
    d. A and C
  4. Which of the following is a plural noun?
    a. People
    b. Persons
    c. Peoples
    d. All of the above
  5. In the context of law, the definition of a “person” does not include a/an ___________. 
    a. Corporation
    b. Human being
    c. Partnership
    d. Animal
    e. Organization

Answers

  1. B
  2. C
  3. D
  4. D
  5. D

Sources

  1. Garner, B. “People. A. And persons.” Garner’s Modern American Usage, 3rd ed., Oxford University Press, 2009, p. 682. 
  2. Person.” The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 5th ed., Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2020. 
  3. Person.” Lexico, Oxford University Press, 2020.
  4. People.” The Merriam-Webster.com Thesaurus, Merriam-Webster Inc., 2020.“People.” Lexico, Oxford University Press, 2020.