Can you please clarify the relation and differences between these nouns?

For example, is it proper to use "persons" instead of "people"? Are they the same? As I believe that "people" is plural, how come there exists the plural of the plural (=peoples)? Does it have any usage?

3 Answers 3


The dreaded Elements of Style have this to say on this matter:

The word people is not to be used with words of number, in place of persons. If of "six people" five went away, how many "people" would be left?

So at least in formal or technical discourse you might want to prefer "persons".

I have also observed that "persons" is generally and widely used in official documents, highway signs, etc. in Britain, Canada, and the U.S.

In informal contexts, however, "people" is probably preferable, especially as it will allow you to steer clear of the, er, people from all walks of life who will try to tell you that "persons" is not a valid word at all.

But as both your question and Strunk point out, you should avoid mixing them too much, because there is no exact correspondence between "person"/"persons" and "people"/"peoples".

  • News reporters have lately frequently been quoting the US Constitution's phrase "counting the whole number of persons" when mandating the census. It always sounds weird to my ears. But I suppose contexts don't get much more official than the Constitution.
    – Barmar
    Dec 31, 2020 at 15:41
  • Well, in the case of the US Constitution, "persons" was the word they settled on to mean "all white people and three-fifths of black people". Mar 17, 2022 at 23:22

The difference between "people" and "peoples" has been answered here: People or peoples when referring to an indigenous population?

Persons would be used as a the plural of person when you are not referring to a group collectively but to a collection of individuals. For example, "Many people like ice cream," but "Corporations are considered persons under the U.S. Consitution."

  • 1
    "Many persons like ice cream" used to be the correct usage traditionally, but this has change in modern times.
    – Noldorin
    Sep 7, 2010 at 21:06
  • @Noldorin: evidence for that statement?
    – delete
    Sep 8, 2010 at 0:02
  • 1
    @Ex-user: Etymonline supports this indirectly with: person early 13c., from O.Fr. persone "human being"; people late 13c., "humans, persons in general,"...Replaced native folk.
    – Jon Purdy
    Oct 27, 2010 at 15:12
  • 2
    I have always understood that there is a straightforward difference, as Doug points out. When you refer to any one person, "persons" is correct. "No entry to unauthorized people" would suggest, admittedly only to those trying to misunderstand perhaps, that individually an unauthorized person may enter, "No entry to unauthorized persons" relates to any individual unauthorized person.
    – Matt
    Jan 16, 2013 at 8:50

In British English at least, "persons" is generally considered a more formal word than "people", e.g. it is often used in formal announcements or notices.

"Persons wishing to carry on hand luggage should consult the steward beforehand"

See also Doug's answer for more considerations.


Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.