I've noticed that when referring to an unknown perpetrator, police often use the term "individual".

For example see this article.

What is the purpose of using this word? I've always found it odd. "person" seems more natural, and is easier to say.

Are the police trying to emphasize that they are looking for a single person instead of potentially multiple people? That's useful information. But in that case, "person" is also singular, so it would still work.

The word "individual" has a somewhat... clinical feel to it. Are the police trying to subtly cast the unknown perpetrators as others, not worthy of being called "people"?

  • 1
    I don't think we can give you a good answer as to the reasoning of individual police officers or entire police departments.
    – Davo
    Apr 4, 2022 at 15:29
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    Intriguing that that website isn't available to GDPR-compliant countries. What on earth are they doing with personal data?! A relevant quote including the context of who actually used the word would be good here. Links break (either accidentally, or — as here — deliberately).
    – Andrew Leach
    Apr 4, 2022 at 15:56
  • 1
    My aunt's bag was snatched in the street and the police referred to her in a report of the incident as "an elderly female". She was more annoyed about that than about the bag theft.
    – davidlol
    Apr 4, 2022 at 17:52
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    Most industries have ideosyncratic jargon. It arises out of tradition, and it's difficult to give "reasons" why certain phrases happened. In the case of police, I suspect it comes from them trying to sound more educated by using long words.
    – Barmar
    Apr 4, 2022 at 20:47
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    @ColleenV I'm assuming they're repeating the language they heard from the police themselves. At least based on what I've seen in TV shows....'
    – Barmar
    Apr 6, 2022 at 18:07

2 Answers 2


I'm not sure if this is the reason here, but in certain legal contexts, there is a distinction. Legally, a corporation is a "person," but it is not an individual; the term "individual" is only applied to humans. Because the word "person" can be ambiguous, it is clearer to say "individual" when specifically referring to a human.

"Individual" cannot refer to corporations, because it refers to something indivisible, and corporations are divisible.

  • 1
    Such an ambiguity is highly unlikely to arise in reports of typical police activities.
    – jsw29
    Dec 17, 2022 at 17:03
  • @jsw29 that's true, but it might be clearer to use "individual" in any legal context so in the (rare) cases where a corporation is involved, confusion can be avoiding without changing the terminology used.
    – Someone
    Dec 17, 2022 at 17:07

Without putting too fine a point on it, this is an example of officialese or bureaucratese: the language constraints adopted by governments and other organizations to make their communications more official-sounding. It is the next-of-kin to pomposity.

According to Wikipedia:

Officialese, bureaucratese, or governmentese is language that sounds official. It is the "language of officialdom". Officialese is characterized by a preference for wordy, long sentences; a preference for complex words, code words or buzzwords over simple, traditional ones; a preference for vagueness over directness and a preference for passive over active voice (some of those elements may, however, vary between different times and languages). The history of officialese can be traced to the history of officialdom, as far back as the eldest human civilizations and their surviving official writings.

It is used to impress and intimidate, and sometimes even to confuse or obfuscate. You can't respond if you aren't sure what is being said.

  • This is probably the true answer, but it is somewhat too general. Individual, the specific word that the question was about, does not seem particularly vague, complex, or confusing, nor does it necessitate the use of long sentences.
    – jsw29
    Dec 18, 2022 at 16:35
  • @jsw29: It is simply more formal. To qualify as officialese it would not have to partake of all aspects of that class; a single one would do.
    – Robusto
    Dec 18, 2022 at 16:50

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