Posted by: Jack Henry | August 27, 2020

Editor’s Corner: People or Persons

Dear Editrix,

Would you say, “To one of the most beautiful persons I know,” or “To one of the most beautiful people I know”?


Feelin’ Groovy

Dear Groovy,

I wouldn’t say either of those things to anybody I know. No, I’m kidding. I’d definitely say, “To one of the most beautiful people I know.” Persons sounds very stuffy to me, which is probably the last thing you want to sound like when writing an ode to your beloved or sending a note to your boss. But your question got me researching a little on the topic, so I thought I’d share.

Merriam-Webster (M-W) has an entire article about the use of people vs. person here. I am not reviewing it with you today, however, because it doesn’t clarify the matter. It discusses the history of the two words and their plurals and how they have made their ways through time. I just want to talk about the basics.

Both words are from Latin. According to M-W, people comes from the word populus (“the people”); person comes from persona, meaning “mask,” such as worn by an actor. Which ones we should use and when, has been argued about since the 1700s. I’m going to give you information on what works today.

Okay, person means “an individual human being.” The plural of person is either persons or people. Here is your rule of thumb: persons is archaic. We use it these days in legal descriptions and documents, where a bit of stuffiness is okay. That’s about it for persons.


Correct: There will be one person at the door and three people waiting tables.

Correct: If you invite a lot of people over, they will certainly come for the hors d’oeuvres.

Correct: The room register says: Only one to three persons permitted in the hot tub at once.

Do not use: I feel like all persons have the right to party like it’s 1999. (And boy was that party a dud!)

Now, let’s look at people. Outside of using this as the plural word for person, you might occasionally hear the plural word peoples. Here is the rule for your other thumb: use only when talking about “a body of people united by a common culture, tradition…that typically have a common language, institutions, and beliefs.”


The peoples of Europe

Indigenous peoples

The Vulcan peoples

Yes, you can see how this might get a little confusing, but chances are you will “hear” the right option when you say it out loud, and you can always double-check the dictionary if you just aren’t sure.

If you really want to throw your audience for a loop, you could always replace the word “people” with “peep hole.” That will really get them going!

Kara Church

Pronouns: she/her/hers

Technical Editor, Advisory

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