SOS English: People vs. Persons

What is a person? By definition, a “person” is any human being, one’s actual self, or someone’s individual personality. Thus, it is clearly distinguished from any animal or thing. So far, so good. But what is a person in its plural form? Persons? People? Well, both are grammatically correct and might seem to mean the same thing. But beware: when you need to choose one, choose wisely. And we’ll show you how.

For centuries, linguists, philosophers, poets, and writers have debated whether “people” or “persons” are the de facto plural form of “person.” However, when looking at the history of both words, they’ve derived from to different Latin words: “people” comes from “populus” (“the people”), and “person” from “persona” (“mask” (of an actor), individual “person(ality)”). Since then, the reasons and objections to using either “people” or “persons” have shifted over time and might have finally concluded. 


When referring to a collective group or an uncountable number of “human beings,” you cannot be wrong using “people.” In general, it’s safe to say that in Modern English, “people” is the official plural form of “person,” and nearly every official English dictionary agrees with that, although there are indeed specific settings or contexts where “persons” are preferred. 

  • People are generally very selfish.
  • The people in this town know how to create a great festival.
  • The people I’ve met here are extremely friendly.
  • Most people don’t know what they really want to do with their lives.
  • Good friends are loyal people.


There are no rules without exceptions. Yes, “people” is today’s official and widely accepted plural form of “person,” but “persons” (which initially was the official plural form) still have their “raison d’être.” Think of several individuals, especially countable ones – “persons” will be more suitable, although it prevails only in a few contexts, especially in law, law enforcement, or certain common phrases.

  • The police have spoken with several persons of interest who were known to have recently contacted the victim.
  • The management department is currently communicating with the responsible persons of the single partners.
  • Members States collaborate with each other in liaison with the Commission through the EWRS in order to identify infected persons and individuals potentially in danger. 
  • Nothing contained in this Paragraph shall affect any right to indemnification to which persons other than the directors and officers may be entitled by contract or otherwise. 
  • Any person or persons found in possession of illegal substances will be prosecuted.