Is it persons, people or peoples? In most cases, people is the correct term to use as a plural for the word person. The word persons is considered archaic, so unless you’re doing some legal writing, it’s best to avoid it. Meanwhile, peoples is only used to refer to distinct ethnic groups, oftentimes within the same region.
People Vs. Persons as Plurals
Both of the words people and person come from Latin, but they are each derived from different Latin words. People came from the word populus, which means “the people” and refers to a group from the same community or nation. Person, on the other hand, came from the Latin word persona, which initially meant “mask” but eventually came to refer to “an individual human.”
At one point in history, it was said that the word persons was to be used as the preferred plural whenever more than one person was referred to as a countable noun. Meanwhile, people was preferred for uncountable nouns. However, these grammatical rules never became standard. Today, the plural persons is only acceptable in legal contexts. In some cases, persons is also used to refer to humans on an individual basis, rather than a collective basis.
- Sixty people came to my Harry Potter costume party. Ten persons came dressed as either Dumbledore or Snape, but the rest of the people were all Harry Potter. (This is considered acceptable because the persons’ individual costume choices are relevant to the sentence’s context.)
- Ten people came dressed as either Dumbledore or Snape, but the rest of the people were all Harry Potter. (This is considered equally acceptable.)
The following examples are considered acceptable as well:
- More people should recycle regularly in order to save the planet.
- Why don’t more people understand that what they say affects others?
- Twenty people protested in Washington, D.C. today.
Formal Legal Writing: Persons Vs. People
The word persons is used regularly in the legal world, including law enforcement. As far as the law is concerned, nothing is collective. Therefore, persons is a helpful term. For example, groups of people are not prosecuted; individuals are. There are a few legal expressions that reflect this grammatical preference, such as “persons of interest” and “missing persons.” You’ll also see people use the word persons in formal writing that sounds legal, like public notices and rules.
- Any person or persons vandalizing private property will be fined.
- Two persons of interest are currently being questioned.
- The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department has several open missing persons cases.
- No more than eight persons can enter the hot tub at the same time.
In a political context, persons is correct within the expression “displaced persons.” For example, you might hear someone say, “Visas will be expedited for displaced persons.”
You should always avoid using the word persons outside of legal contexts. Never use persons in business settings.
Here’s an example of an unacceptable use of the word persons: “To the persons who stole my lunch from the break room: I’m watching you.” Using persons in this context sounds silly and a bit stuffy.
If you’ve used the word persons outside of a legal context, you can often replace it with the word those. For example, “Persons who use our services will be charged a fee,” turns into “Those who use our services will be charged a fee.”
People Vs. Peoples for Ethnic Groups and Nationalities
Always use the word people when referring to the people of a single nationality or ethnic group.
- The people of the United States have a right to free speech.
- Joe Biden was elected by the people of the United States in 2020.
In cases where it’s necessary to distinguish between ethnic groups within the same cultural or geographical context, peoples can be used.
- The peoples of Palestine and Israel are at war.
- The peoples of the world hold a variety of religious views.
The Bottom Line – Persons, People or Peoples?
When it comes to choosing persons, people or peoples, in the vast majority of cases, the correct plural of person is people. In legal contexts, the plural persons is used. When referring to more than one distinct ethnic group, use the word peoples.
Here is another trio of words that are often the cause of some confusion: There, Their and They’re.