This is the sentence I've read:

Freedom is something humans in all times have fought for.

I am under the impression that the use of humans is not adequate here. Thus, my question is: when to use humans and when people in general and what is the semantic difference?

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    What does your dictionary say about human beings or humans? It would be interesting to know why you judge the word as inadequate. – rogermue Jun 25 '15 at 7:07
  • The OP is not suggesting that 'humans' is inadequate. He is asking about the difference in meaning between 'humans' and 'people'. – Roaring Fish Jan 2 '16 at 5:34

Considering only the senses in which the two overlap (e.g. ignoring "the people" or "a people" referring to a particular populace), there remain some distinctions.

Human is a species. More strictly, its a genus, but of that genus all but one species is extinct.

People is the group of entities who possess personhood, which is a concept open to various debates.

Historically, personhood has been denied of women, slaves, people of certain ethnicities, and people convicted of some extreme crimes, an sadly there remain extremists of such views. (Some do indeed deny humanity of those they deny personhood, but this is rarer and those who deny humanity always deny personhood but not all who deny personhood deny humanity).

Conversely, personhood has been granted by some to animals, or certain animals (e.g. dolphins are legally people in India, and great apes are legally people in the Balearic Islands) and corporations. Such extensions to non-human entities often covers some, but not all, of how personhood is considered (and just what that means differs widely).

Theologically and religiously, personhood is extended to deities (including the Trinitarian concept of most branches of Christianity, that there is a single god of three persons), aspects of deities, spirits such as elves, djinn, and fairies, the spirits of departed people, genii loci, and many other entities, sometimes in complicated ways (e.g. an undine is not fully a person in lacking a soul, but would become a person if they gained a soul through becoming pregnant by a human man).

Hypothetically and theoretically, personhood is often extended to extra-terrestrial beings, artificial intelligences, and fictional fantasy beings (overlapping with some of the religious ideas above, but normally not taken as literally).

Now, while these are two very different concepts, they do still tend to mean the same thing in practice in most usages.

The one reason to perhaps favour humans in your sentence, is that we might relate it to the concept of "human rights".

However, people would be much more often used when there wasn't a particular need to refer to humans qua humans. That alone is a good reason to favour the term. We might also consider that while we speak of humans all having rights, this in fact relates to personhood (entailing that all humans have personhood) and the rights and desire of freedom are in fact part of how many concepts of personhood are defined, more than how we consider the genus homo.

About the only reason I could think of for favouring the unusual use of humans you have, is if perhaps you were also to separately consider the non-human uses of people, since that would clearly need to make the distinction.


I would consider "humans" adequate here, in that the statement makes logical sense, but I think "people" is more appropriate. "Humans" and "people" are semantically the same, but "humans" has a more biological connotation, so you might use it when contrasting humans with other species. "People" doesn't really have that sense of scientific objectivity to it, which seems more fitting for a statement like this.


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