Q&A: People vs Persons?

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, it’s the People versus Persons in a court-case of grammatical proportions…

Q: Hi AWC, remember how last week we talked about money and monies?
A: Yes, it was a very rewarding conversation.
Q: Well there was another part to that question – and it relates to a similar thing. Why do we say “persons” when we already have a collective noun in “people”…?
A: Actually, you should be asking the opposite – why we’re using “people” instead of “persons”. But first a history lesson.
Q: Ooooh oooh, can we do Ancient Egypt? Or the Soviet Union in the early 1960s?
A: No, we meant the history of this topic.
Q: Oh.
A: So, going back to their Latin origins, these words derive from two quite separate places. “Persons” comes from persona – relating to the individual. Meanwhile “people” is from populus – for a group of persons sharing an environment.
Q: That makes sense.
A: Exactly, so the true plural of “person” is indeed “persons”, but over time it was replaced by “people” in most areas.
Q: Didn’t somebody try and stop it happening?
A: Well, there was a bit of a movement towards using “people” only for an unknown mass of well, people. And “persons” for ANY number of individuals that could be counted. For example, “Six persons attended the auction that saw the property passed in at $2.4 million.” But that whole rule never really took off, and today we’d be more likely say “six people attended the auction”.
Q: Wow, passed in at THAT amount? Must be a nice place.
A: Yes, yes, sure.
Q: Swimming pool?
A: Um, yes okay. It was just an examp–
Q: What about a tennis court?
A: Sure. It has three.
Q: Three? Now I KNOW you’re making it up.
A: Good, so as we were saying, despite “person” having a perfectly good plural form, nowadays “people” is used for almost all situations of two or more individuals. The use of “persons” has been confined to legal or formal contexts only. For example, “Police are currently following up with persons of interest.”
Q: Legal people just love to use old-fashioned words. Got another example?
A: Sure. In a formal sign, it may say “Maximum two persons at any one time”. It also gets used in reference to the body, like in, “Police found the stolen items on their persons”.
Q: I wonder if they robbed the imaginary mansion? They could have taken two of the tennis courts for starters…
A: Very funny. So that’s it really. “People” is usually fine unless you’re being legal or formal. Any other questions?
Q: Yes. Is “peoples” a word?
A: It is actually – it's the plural of people.
Q: When would I use that?
A: If you were referring to people of different races, you’d use it – e.g. “the peoples of Eastern Europe”. Note, this is different to using it for possession, such as “the people’s wishes” – that would include an apostrophe.
Q: Okay, we’ve started to talk about apostrophes, so I’m leaving before this gets ugly.
A: Good idea.

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