Because languages shift over time, some words drop out of common usage and are replaced by others. This is the case with persons and people.
People and persons both refer to groups of two or more individuals. In the past, persons had referred to specific numbers, whereas people was used for general groups.
However, this distinction isn’t as strictly applied in modern English. Read on to find out why.
What is the Difference Between Persons and People?
In this article, I will compare person vs. people. I’ll use each word in a sentence, and, at the end, I’ll show you a helpful trick to remember whether you should use people or persons in your writing.
When to Use People
What does people mean? People, as a plural noun, refers to two or more individuals.
If Keri is a person and Chris is a person, then Keri and Chris are two people.
People can be used in reference to any group of two or more individuals, like in the following examples.
- Because the weather was so bad, only 700 people attended the baseball game.
- Over 3,000 people voted for the millage, but it still did not pass.
- Amanda, Catherine, and Jodi were the only three people that I knew at the party.
- Wendy’s is the latest major fast-food chain to report weaker-than-expected sales growth, with the hamburger company saying people aren’t dining out as much because it has gotten even cheaper to eat at home. –The New York Times
When to Use Persons
What does persons mean? Persons also means two or more people.
In the past, persons referred to a specific number of individuals, whereas people was used in a more general sense. You would not use persons in reference to groups of large or indeterminate size, such as a room full of students, the crowd at a football game, or the population of Sudan.
Today, the use of persons has narrowed to specific phrases, usually in a legal or law enforcement context.
If you have a small, specific number, like three bank robbers or two runaway children, you might choose to say persons of interest or missing persons instead, as the case may be.
See the following sentences as examples.
- The police are searching for three persons of interest in connection with the armed robbery of a bank Tuesday night.
- The mother filed a missing persons report for her two children.
- Two of three people investigators questioned as persons of interest Wednesday have been released, but the third remains in custody. –Chicago Daily Herald
Outside of these situations, persons is not commonly used.
Trick to Remember the Difference
It’s difficult to justify using persons outside of certain, set phrases, like persons of interest or missing persons. In contemporary English, persons sounds stilted and unnatural.
For the phrases outlined above, remember that persons is specific and both words contain the letter S. You should only use persons in specific contexts referring to a specified number of individuals.
Summary: Persons vs. People
Is it persons or people? In the past, persons referred to a specific number of individuals. Meanwhile, people was used to refer more generally to large groups, or groups whose size was not specified.
Today, people has largely replaced persons in all contexts, outside of a few set phrases. You can remember to reserve persons for small groups of a specific number of people, since persons and specific both contain the letter S.
In most cases, however, you will use people. If you are having a hard time choosing between persons or people in your writing, you can refer back to this article.