Is It Correct to Say “Persons”?

Marcus Froland

Language is a funny thing. It evolves, twists, and turns, leaving even the most proficient speakers scratching their heads. Today, we’re tackling an often-debated topic in the English language. It’s about the words we use to talk about more than one person. You’ve probably heard both “persons” and “people.” But when it comes to which one is right, things get a bit murky.

It seems like a straightforward question, but the answer is as complex as language itself. The choice between “persons” and “people” has puzzled writers, speakers, and learners for ages. And if you think you know the answer, you might want to think again. By the end of this article, what you thought was correct might take an unexpected turn.

In English, “persons” and “people” both refer to more than one person. However, they are used in different contexts. “Persons” is more formal and less common. It’s often seen in legal or official documents. For example, “No persons under 18 are allowed.” On the other hand, “people” is the standard term used in everyday conversation and writing when talking about groups of individuals. Saying “There were five people at the party” is more natural than using “persons.” So, while it is correct to say “persons,” it’s usually better to use “people” for most situations.

Understanding the History Behind “Persons” and “People”

The English language is an ever-evolving entity, and the usage of words like “persons” and “people” has changed significantly over time. To better understand these changes, let us examine the historical and linguistic roots of these terms.

The Origin of “Person” from Latin Persona

The word “person” has its origins in the Latin term “persona.” Initially, “persona” referred to a mask, similar to those worn by actors in ancient Roman theatre. Over time, the meaning of “persona” evolved to signify “an individual human.” The development of this word from a representation to a genuine human identity is a fascinating linguistic journey, illustrating how language adapts and changes over time.

“People” and Its Roots in the Word Populus

On the other hand, the term “people” comes from the Latin word “populus,” which denotes a group from the same nation, community, or ethnic background. “Populus” carries a collective nuance, originally referring to a unified body of individuals sharing a commonality. This meaning has endured in the English language, with the term “people” being used to describe groups of individuals with shared characteristics or ties.

Historic Usage of “Persons” in English Grammar

In English grammar, the historic adoption of “persons” as the preferred plural form to refer to multiple individuals was debated but never truly became standardized practice. A proposed rule suggested using “persons” for countable nouns and “people” for uncountable mass nouns. However, this distinction failed to take hold in the language.

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Today, “persons” is mostly considered correct in legal contexts and occasionally when emphasizing human individuality rather than collectiveness. This preservation of “persons” in legal language demonstrates the lasting impact of tradition and the continued importance of linguistic nuance when referencing individuals.

“Persons” in Modern Usage: Legal Language and Formal Contexts

In contemporary usage, the term “persons” is predominantly reserved for legal and formal writing. This is due to the specific implications of individuality and specificity that are critical in legal contexts. In this section, we will discuss some instances where “persons” is commonly used in legal language and formal contexts.

“Persons” emphasizes distinct individuals within a group and is more prevalent in legal language, where precision and individuality are vital.

  1. Persons of interest: This phrase is often used to identify one or more individuals who are relevant to an ongoing investigation. By using “persons of interest” rather than “people of interest”, the law accentuates the unique identities and importance of the involved individuals.
  2. Missing persons: Law enforcement commonly employs this term when referring to individuals who have been lost, are missing, or have vanished under suspicious circumstances. The usage of “missing persons” highlights that each person is a separate subject, with distinct characteristics and identities.
  3. Occupancy limits: In the context of regulations and building codes, the number of persons allowed in a space is often specified, such as “maximum occupancy of 50 persons”. By using “persons” instead of “people”, the language emphasizes that each occupant is counted individually, not just as a member of a group.

Though the term “persons” remains appropriate in these specific legal expressions and contexts, using it outside of such situations may come across as unnecessarily formal or even pretentious. As language evolves, modern usage tends to favor “people” as the standard plural form for most scenarios, reserving “persons” for moments requiring a greater degree of formality or individuality.

Distinguishing Between “People” and “Peoples”

While navigating the English language, one might come across the terms “people” and “peoples.” Although they may appear similar, these words actually imply two distinct concepts. In this section, we’ll explore the differences between “people” and “peoples,” as well as the appropriate contexts for using each word.

The Singular and Plural Uses of “People”

Interestingly, the word “people” can be used as both a singular and plural noun. As a singular noun, it refers to the entirety of a single group, such as a nation or community. For example, one might say, “The Native American people have a rich cultural heritage.”

On the other hand, “people” can also be used as a plural noun denoting multiple individuals. In this case, it is often interchangeable with the word “persons.” An example of this usage would be, “There were 20 people at the party.”

“People” serves as a versatile word, able to represent both a singular group and multiple individuals.

When to Use “Peoples” for Ethnic Groups and Nationalities

While “people” is commonly used to reference a single population or group, “peoples” takes on a different meaning. The term “peoples” highlights the distinctions and diversity among multiple ethnic groups, nationalities, or cultural communities within a shared geographical area or cultural setting.

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For instance, the term “Indigenous Peoples” emphasizes the diversity among various indigenous communities around the world. To specify that you are discussing multiple ethnic groups, it is essential to use “peoples” instead of “people.”

  1. Native American peoples encompass different tribes, each with its own unique culture.
  2. Africa is home to many distinct peoples with a broad array of languages, customs, and traditions.
  3. The ancient peoples of the Roman Empire included Romans, Greeks, Egyptians, and Gauls, to name just a few.

Understanding the distinction between “people” and “peoples” can prove invaluable when discussing diverse populations. Not only does it enrich the nuances of your writing, but it also demonstrates a deep respect for the cultural identity of the individuals and groups you’re referring to.

Navigating Between “Persons” and “People” in Everyday Communication

In daily language, we tend to favor the more contemporary term, “people” when referring to a group of individuals. “Persons” may come across as overly formal or stilted in casual conversation. It is essential, however, to acknowledge individual preferences and avoid overgeneralizations when deciding between “persons” and “people.”

Context and personal preferences play a crucial role in determining the appropriate use of these words. While “people” is a more inclusive term, some situations may call for using “persons” to emphasize the individual members of a group.

“The allocation of resources must be fair and equitable for all persons involved, taking into consideration each one’s unique needs and circumstances.”

In this example, “persons” is utilized to accentuate the individual nature of the group members and the need to address their specific circumstances. But for most day-to-day conversations, “people” continues to be the preferred term.

  1. Use “people” when: speaking of a collective group without emphasizing individual identities. For example:
    “Twenty people attended the meeting.”
  2. Use “persons” when: it is necessary to place a focus on individual members within a group, usually in formal or legal contexts. For example:
    “The elevator has a maximum capacity of eight persons.”

Just as it’s important to be aware of the context, showing respect for identity preferences is equally significant. Acknowledge others’ choices and exercise sensitivity in using “persons” or “people,” as their identity should be valued and accurately represented.

Ultimately, by understanding the nuances of each term and appreciating the identity choices of others, you can more effectively navigate between “persons” and “people” in everyday communication. In doing so, you contribute to meaningful and respectful conversations in diverse social settings.

The Preferred Plural: Why “People” is Overtaking “Persons”

As language trends evolve, “people” has gained favor as the choice plural form for most speakers and writers, outstripping “persons” due to its broader applicability and contemporary appeal. Over time, numerous style manuals and usage guides have shifted to endorse “people” as the more versatile option for referring to groups of individuals in a wide array of contexts, leaving “persons” largely restricted to legal jargon and highly formal registers.

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Why is “people” displacing “persons” in modern language? The answer lies in a variety of factors that have contributed to this transformation, including society’s evolving norms, the simplification of language, and the desire to communicate more efficiently. Here are some key factors supporting this linguistic trend:

  1. User-friendly Language: “People” is widely seen as simpler, easier to understand, and more accessible to most audiences. Choosing “people” over “persons” helps create clear and efficient communication.
  2. Contemporary Appeal: “People” feels fresher and more in tune with modern language usage, while “persons” carries connotations of antiquity and formality, making it less appealing to today’s speakers and writers.
  3. Versatility: Unlike “persons,” which is largely confined to specific legal contexts, “people” can be employed in nearly all situations involving groups of individuals, be it colloquial conversations or official documents.

While “persons” still holds sway in legal phrases like “missing persons” and “persons of interest,” its usage in other settings has diminished. For most individuals, using “people” is the safer bet, as it effectively communicates the intended meaning without sounding stilted, formal, or outdated. In the grand scheme of the English language, “people” has emerged as the versatile, contemporary, and user-friendly replacement for “persons” in the majority of contexts.

Emphasizing Individuality: When “Persons” Might Be Appropriate

While “persons” is often viewed as an antiquated and formal term, there are certain situations where its use can be appropriate, especially when emphasizing the individuality of members within a group. Specifically, “persons” can be more suitable than “people” in legal contexts and formal registers, helping to underscore the individual human beings involved, rather than treating them as a collective group.

For instance, consider situations that demand clarity about the number of individuals involved, like identity-first language where specificity about personal attributes is crucial. Using “persons” in these situations can help reinforce the unique identities and attributes of each person involved, emphasizing their distinct nature and individual contribution.

In conclusion, although the use of “persons” has dwindled in favor of “people” in most contexts, it remains an important term to be aware of. In legal language, formal settings, and instances where the necessity for individual recognition is paramount, “persons” may be the more appropriate choice to convey the intended meaning.