Grammar People vs. Persons |
The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation

People vs. Persons

The noun person has two plurals: persons and people. Most people don’t use persons, but the sticklers say there are times when we should. “When we say persons,” says Wilson Follett’s Modern American Usage, “we are thinking, or ought to be, of ones—individuals with identities; whereas when we say people we should mean a large group, an indefinite and anonymous mass.”

The traditional rule is that persons is used for either an exact or a small number. So we might estimate that a hundred people were there. Or if we know the exact number, we’d say ninety-eight persons were there.

As for “a small number,” how small is “small”? In Words on Words, John B. Bremner suggests fewer than fifty. Theodore M. Bernstein concurs, saying in The Careful Writer that fifty people is acceptable. To Bernstein, two people is nearly unthinkable but 4,381 persons is “quite proper.”

Meanwhile, the language moves on. In A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, Bryan A. Garner calls the persons-people distinction “pedantic.” Garner says that twelve persons on the jury “sounds stuffy” and that most Americans today would say people instead. Roy H. Copperud agrees. In A Dictionary of Usage and Style he dismisses the grammatical superiority of persons as “superstition,” a law that “usage has in fact repealed.”

Because persons sounds aloof and clinical, the word still thrives in legal, official, or formal usage. A hotel chain’s website offers “options for three and more persons.” Elevators carry signs saying, “Occupancy by more than eight persons is unlawful.” The Department of Justice has a database called the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System.

A more timely debate these days would be people vs. folks. Traditionalists regard folks with suspicion and contempt. Bernstein says, “Folks is a casualism … not suitable for general straightforward writing.” Bremner calls it “deliberately folksy” and “corny in formal speech and writing.” But judging by its growing popularity and acceptance in this informal age, folks will probably be synonymous with people in another ten years.

If the article or the existing discussions do not address a thought or question you have on the subject, please use the "Comment" box at the bottom of this page.

29 responses to “People vs. Persons

  1. Wilford L. says:

    In the South, you is singular and y’all is plural. If there is one person, we say, “You come back to see us.” If there are two to six persons we say, “Y’all come back to see us.” For more than six people, we say, “All y’all come back to see us.”

    • That is interesting. We have spent some time in the South, and we are familiar with the Southern dialect you speak of. Thanks for writing.

      • Anne Victory says:

        So far as I know, there is no numerical “rule” of when to use “y’all” vs. “all y’all.” Yes, you is singular and y’all is plural, but all y’all is meant to include an entire group, whereas y’all would be a portion (assuming a large group.” There are few instances where you’d use “all y’all,” but I suppose one would be if you’re at a meeting of say ten people and you’re talking to two friends. If you said, “Are y’all going to the Christmas party?” that would mean the two people you’re talking to. “Are all y’all going to the Christmas party” would mean the entire group.

        Meanwhile… I’m still trying to decide on people vs. persons.

  2. V says:

    I was searching for an answer to whether signs “say” things. I can’t find even a debate on the subject.

    Example sentence: “Several people in the baggage claim area are holdings signs saying ‘Smith Family’ or ‘Harrington.'”

    Is that sentence perfectly fine as it is, or should it be rewritten so that the signs are not speaking?

    • We know of no rules covering this area, and the use of the word say in that context seems fairly common. However, since Merriam-Webster’s Learners Dictionary includes this definition of the word read: “to show (words) for someone to read,” the sentence could be written as:
      Several people in the baggage claim area are holding signs that read “Smith Family” or “Harrington.”

      • Bill Ziese says:

        I believe a sign “saying” or “reading” implies it a living thing capable of saying or reading. I always use a sign “states” something. While a living person can state or make a statement, a sign can state or make a statement.

      • Grier says:

        Would “Shoplifting can leave a person with a record and affect their life” not be correct, though, given the new ways to address gender? “His or her” gives limited gender options. I also wonder, though, if this is not a grammatical argument but a political one. Thoughts?

        • says:

          Many traditionalists continue to feel that the plural pronoun their is not grammatically correct when it refers to a singular noun, in this case “person.” (Also see our recent post “Singular They Part II.”) We prefer to reword the sentence to “Shoplifting can leave people with records and affect their lives.” The Chicago Manual of Style offers nine techniques for achieving gender neutrality:
          “1. Omit the pronoun: the programmer should update the records when data is transferred to her by the head office becomes the programmer should update the records when data is transferred by the head office.
          2. Repeat the noun: a writer should be careful not to needlessly antagonize readers, because her credibility will suffer becomes a writer should be careful not to needlessly antagonize readers, because the writer’s credibility will suffer.
          3. Use a plural antecedent: a contestant must conduct himself with dignity at all times becomes contestants must conduct themselves with dignity at all times.
          4. Use an article instead of a personal pronoun: a student accused of cheating must actively waive his right to have his guidance counselor present becomes a student accused of cheating must actively waive the right to have a guidance counselor present.
          5. Use the neutral singular pronoun one: an actor in New York is likely to earn more than he is in Paducah becomes an actor in New York is likely to earn more than one in Paducah.
          6. Use the relative pronoun who (works best when it replaces a personal pronoun that follows if): employers presume that if an applicant can’t write well, he won’t be a good employee becomes employers presume that an applicant who can’t write well won’t be a good employee.
          7. Use the imperative mood: a lifeguard must keep a close watch over children while he is monitoring the pool becomes keep a close watch over children while monitoring the pool.
          8. Use he or she (sparingly): if a complainant is not satisfied with the board’s decision, then he can ask for a rehearing becomes if a complainant is not satisfied with the board’s decision, then he or she can ask for a rehearing.
          9. Revise the clause: a person who decides not to admit he lied will be considered honest until someone exposes his lie becomes a person who denies lying will be considered honest until the lie is exposed.”

  3. Chemuta M. says:

    Speaking of plurals what is the pluralization rule of words like cactus, walrus and platypus. Cactus and platypus can be pluralized like Cacti and platypi but walri is incorrect. Can you help me with this?

    • Cactuses, platypuses, and walruses are correct plural forms. Cacti and platypi are also acceptable alternative plural forms. Some nouns derived from Latin replace -us with -i to form the plural. The word walrus does not derive from Latin. There are many exceptions, however. When in doubt, your best bet is to look the words up in a dictionary.

  4. Midhael F says:

    Many people (an indefinite number) agree that removing all pluralization of nouns in English would relieve a lot of headache. One could say “one person” or “fifty person” and although the syntax would sound irregular, the listener or reader would none the less grasp the meaning.

  5. English Miss says:

    Is this statement correct: shoplifting can leave a person with a record and impact their life.

    My friend said that person is plural and the noun should be pl. Is “person” in this sentence plural?


  6. Suzie says:

    Why is it taboo to use “it” as the pronoun for a person of unidentified gender? “It” is commonly used when speaking of an animal of unknown gender. I don’t see any insult. I think it is better than confusing by using the plural or writing self conscious reconstructed sentences.

  7. Julie Sabey says:

    If I am using the phrase “other people’s identities” should I say rather, “other persons identities”? or “other peoples’ identities” thank you.

  8. Jim says:

    I wonder if anything can be added to the discussion of using “persons” or “people” by considering the historical and theological implications of the word “person.” An unabridged dictionary will point out that the term can mean a human being not an animal, or a “self,” and even relates to “hypostasis,” one of the three “persons” in the Trinitarian understanding of god. So we have this tradition where “person” suggests importance in a way that I don’t sense from “people.” Today I drafted a letter of recommendation and wrote that the subject was “one of the most honest persons I know.” I struggled with persons vs. people, but it seemed important to refer to the subject as an individual of worth in a way that “one of the most honest people” would not quite have achieved.

    • While the word choice is likely a matter of style and preference, we understand your point that “person” can suggest a greater emphasis on the individual even in a plural context.

  9. Simran says:

    I have doubt that can we use persons as plural form as I used to think persons is not correct word to use if we have people to use as plural form.
    If someone is using persons for small group of people so, would that be consider as correct or not?

    • Use of the word persons to describe a small group of people is a matter of style and preference. As we indicated in the post and in the many comments and responses below it, persons can be correct in certain contexts.

  10. Dasha says:

    I was writing “Now there are 16 of us. Next week we are employing 2 more people.” I started doubting the “people” in this situation, and it brought me here. The guy is giving an interview, and he is going to employ 2 more people(?). In this situation, the “people” are not individuals, but they are going to be part of the team, as workforce. I read your article carefully, and I am still not sure what to use in my situation.

    • says:

      Use of the word persons to describe a small group of people is a matter of style and preference. Writing people is fine in your sentences. You may want to review our Rules for Writing Numbers to help you decide when to spell out numbers and when to use numerals.

  11. Waldo says:

    Well, can you say one people for we can certainly say one person?

    • says:

      We would typically not refer to “one people” because “people” is plural, and in being so, it includes more than one person. An exception might be a reference to an entire group in a collective sense, such as “the French are a people with a passion for cuisine.”

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