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I had a little fight about persons vs. people.

Could you advise if both of the following are correct, if possible with reference to a dictionary?

  1. A table for two people please.
  2. A table for two persons please.

Besides that, how would you ask for a table in a restaurant?

I read http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/persons and Person, Persons, People, Peoples, but they didn't really solve the question if both are correct.

I also found the last paragraph of http://oxforddictionaries.com/definition/person, which suggests that (1) is "more correct", but doesn't say (2) is wrong.

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4  
You would say A table for two, please. –  Daniel Oct 25 '11 at 18:54

4 Answers 4

up vote 6 down vote accepted

Generally, persons is a decent substitute for individuals, and appears more in legal contexts that demand precision.

People is the ordinary plural of person.

Asking for a table for two or a table for two people is better than asking for a table for two persons.

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I'm curious how they came to use "persons" instead of "people" legal contexts... –  FrustratedWithFormsDesigner Oct 25 '11 at 19:01
3  
@FrustratedWithFormsDesigner It's a good question. Two things that come to mind are 1) the phrase "in person" (sometimes you're legally required to do things in person) and 2) the fact that it accords with the French plural (legalese loves itself some French and Latin). –  onomatomaniak Oct 25 '11 at 19:06
2  
Or perhaps a more practical reason would be that it makes form-writing easier. Saying "Person(s) affected..." is pretty convenient. –  onomatomaniak Oct 25 '11 at 20:11
    
Would you say that "A table for two persons please." is wrong or that it is correct but unusal English? –  Blama Oct 26 '11 at 15:52
2  
It is grammatically correct. It is also nonstandard. Everyone will understand you, but most people will assume it was a mistake. –  onomatomaniak Oct 26 '11 at 15:54

According to this online article from DailyWritingTips, the words person and people are derived from different latin origins: persona and populum, respectively.

The article goes on to suggest that both person and people can be used in their own natural plural forms; persons and peoples, but modern daily use favours the following combination:

Singular: Person

Plural: People

The entry also backs up @onomatomaniak 's assertion that persons is used more for legal text, but doesn't indicate that persons is any more precise than people. The article doesn't reference any sources itself.

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The NOAD has a note about using persons instead of people.

The words people and persons can both be used as the plural of person, but they are not used in exactly the same way. People is by far the more common of the two words and is used in most ordinary contexts: "a group of people"; "there were only about ten people"; "several thousand people have been rehoused". Persons, on the other hand, tends now to be restricted to official or formal contexts, as in "this vehicle is authorized to carry twenty persons"; "no persons admitted without a pass." In some contexts, persons, by pointing to the individual, may sound less friendly than people: "The number should not be disclosed to any unauthorized persons."

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The normal plural of person is people, unless you're a bureaucrat.

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6  
Or you're discussing grammar: first person, second person and third person can (I guess) be called "three persons", but not "three people". :-) –  ShreevatsaR Oct 25 '11 at 19:06
    
I agree. Good point. –  Barrie England Oct 25 '11 at 19:28

protected by RegDwigнt Jan 16 '13 at 21:33

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