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I've seen there are already multiple questions on the difference between persons and people as plural for person. The answers usually seem to suggest that there's a difference in usage (legal/formal vs everyday/informal contexts) but I wonder if there can be also a difference in meaning.

For instance, let's compare these two sentences:

Only 5 people are allowed to be in the chamber

Only 5 persons are allowed to be in the chamber

If I heard the first sentence, I would not be sure if this means that only 5 random people are allowed to enter the chamber at a time or that only 5 specific people have the right to do so.

If I heard the second sentence, I would be much more inclined to believe that it is referring to a limit of people allowed to be inside the chamber at any given time rather than to specific people.

Is my understanding correct? Can there be a difference in meaning between these two words?

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  • Notices in lifts (elevators) say that they are designed to carry up to X number of persons, clearly meaning bodies as freight rather than individuals. Aug 20 '20 at 7:16
  • When I hear people, I think of a mass group without distinction. When I hear persons, I think of a group of individuals. Which actually contradicts the previous comment by @KateBunting. Mass freight (in elevators), to me, would be better served by people, whereas the use of persons emphasizes individuality. I think it's because persons uses the normal technique of adding an s to the noun, whereas people doesn't. Aug 20 '20 at 14:13
  • 'Persons' is more formal than 'people' ; even discounting this, FF has pointed out elsewhere that they're not fully interchangeable ('they had tasers about their persons'), and the 'person' ... 'personal' notional link does mean that 'persons' connotes more familiarity, more of the individuals concerned. 'People' is more impersonal. Aug 20 '20 at 14:23
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    – tchrist
    Aug 24 '20 at 13:48
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I don’t think this shows an underlying difference in meaning. The fact that “persons” sounds like legalese is enough to explain what you describe.

It would be very strange for a law (or other formal rule) to state “There are five people/persons are allowed to be in the chamber” (but we won’t tell you who they are).

So in a sentence that uses phrasing reminiscent of a law or formal rule, the natural interpretation of “five persons” is as a quantity giving a limit, rather than a set of five specific but unnamed persons.

“Only 5 people are allowed to be in the chamber“ would tend to take the same interpretation if understood as a law/rule. But because it uses more conversational wording, in a different context, it could function as a statement rather than a rule.

“Persons” can refer to a specific set of people: e.g.:

(b) The initial Board of Directors of the Tahoe Resource Conservation District shall be composed of the following five persons who shall each be an owner of land within the area described in Section 9951 :

(1) One person appointed by the California Tahoe Regional Planning Agency [...]

(https://codes.findlaw.com/ca/public-resources-code/prc-sect-9952.html)

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