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Persons vs. People vs. Peoples—What’s the Difference?

Most of the time, people is the correct word to choose as a plural for person. Persons is archaic, and it is safe to avoid using it, except in legal writing, which has its own traditional language. Peoples is only necessary when you refer to distinct ethnic groups (for example, within the same region).

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People vs. persons as plurals

Person and people both derive from Latin, but from different words. Person came from persona, which first meant “mask,” like that worn by an actor, but eventually came to mean “an individual human.” People, on the other hand, came from populus, which means “the people” in the sense of a group from the same nation, community, or ethnic group.

There was a time in history when it was put forward that grammatically, persons should be the preferred plural any time more than one person was referred to as a countable noun, and people should be preferred for uncountable nouns, also called mass nouns. That practice did not become standard, and nowadays, the plural persons is only considered correct in legal contexts and, occasionally, when deliberately referring to humans individually rather than collectively.

Eighty people came to my Star Wars costume party on May the Fourth.

Six persons came dressed as either Princess Leia or Darth Vader, but the rest of the people were all wookies. (Acceptable because the persons’ individual choices are relevant to the context.)

Six people came dressed as either Princess Leia or Darth Vader, but the rest of the people were all wookies. (Equally acceptable.)

More people should recycle their paper to save trees.

Why don’t more people realize that capybaras are rodents?

Sixteen people protested on the White House lawn this Saturday.

Persons or people in formal legal writing

In the legal world, including law enforcement, persons is used regularly. It is helpful because nothing is collective where the law is concerned; individuals are prosecuted, not groups. Some legal expressions, such as persons of interest and missing persons, reflect this grammatical preference. Some people use persons in writing that is legal-sounding, but not strictly legal by definition, such as rules and public notices.

Any person or persons vandalizing courthouse property will be fined.

There are two persons of interest being questioned for the murder of John Doe.

The Douglas County Police Department has seventeen open missing persons cases.

No more than six persons can occupy the hot tub at any one time.

One political context in which persons is correct is in the expression displaced persons.

Visas will be expedited for refugees and displaced persons.

Using persons outside of legal contexts can sound unnecessarily affected. Avoid it completely in business contexts.

To the persons who stole my muffins from the break room: I will be avenged. (A bit silly, given the offense.)

Persons who retain our services will be charged a monthly fee.

Those who retain our services will be charged a monthly fee.

People vs. peoples for ethnic groups and nationalities

When you refer to the people of a single ethnic group or nationality, always use the word people.

The people of China no longer need to abide by the one-child policy.

Emmanuel Macron was elected by the people of France on May 7, 2017.

“We here highly resolve that government of the people, for the people, and by the people will not perish from the earth.” (Abraham Lincoln)

Peoples is only used in cases when it is necessary to distinguish between ethnic groups within the same geographical or cultural context.

The Israeli and Palestinian peoples have long been at war.

The peoples of the world practice a wide variety of religions.

Persons, people, or peoples?

The plural of person should be people in the vast majority of contexts, although legalese uses the plural persons. Peoples should be reserved for instances where you are referring to more than one distinct ethnic group.

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