Persons vs. People: Quick Tips for Correct Use

While the term people and the term persons are both plural forms of the word person, they are not used in the same situations. With a few exceptions, people is generally the correct term to use when referring to a group of people or more than one individual. 

persons vs people examplepersons vs people example

When to Use People

The word people refers to more than one person. Unless you work as a police officer or write contracts or public notices, this is likely the only word you will ever need to use to refer to more than one human being. 

Multiple Individuals

The word people is almost always the correct term when referring to more than one human being. This is the standard way to refer to multiple individuals in conversation or written communication.

  • Ten people from my class are planning to participate in the competition. 

  • Bill and Susan are only able to invite 50 people to their wedding reception. 

In this context, people is the plural form of person

Collective Reference

The word people should always be used in collective references to groups of individuals, such as the citizens of a particular country or members of a recognized group, such as an ethnic or cultural group. 

  • The American people have elected a new president.

  • As a people, Canadians are considered to be exceptionally polite.

In this context, the word people is being used as a collective singular noun rather than the plural form of person. The correct plural term for referring to more than one ethnic group would be peoples.

Criminal Case Citations

This collective people is also used in criminal charges. When charges are filed for a criminal proceeding, the prosecutor is working as a representative of the jurisdiction in which he or she serves. As a result, the wording for such cases is The People versus (vs.) Defendant Name. 

When to Use Persons

While the term persons is a plural form of person, it is not used in most situations. This word is almost exclusively used by law enforcement officials or in contracts or other legally binding documents. 

Law Enforcement

The phrase persons of interest is used to refer to individuals law enforcement believes may have information about or be involved with a crime. Assuming they have not been arrested or charged, such individuals are referred to as persons of interest.  

  • Person of interest (singular): Law enforcement officials are seeking information on the whereabouts of Bill Smith, who is a person of interest in the XYZ investigation. 

  • Persons of interest (plural):  The police have spoken with several persons of interest who were known to have been in the vicinity of the location where the matter under investigation is believed to have occurred. 

  • People of interest (incorrect): The word people is not correct in this context. Law enforcement officials might state that they are seeking two people who may have information relevant to a situation. However, they would not use the phrase people of interest

Legal Documents 

The term persons is used in legal documents instead of the word people. There is a good reason for this. In legal terminology, the word person isn’t limited to human beings. It also includes “a non-human entity that is treated as a person for limited legal purposes,” such as a corporation or other type of business. 

  • In a last will and testament, the word persons is used to refer to the list of individuals or organizations named to receive items as a bequest from the estate. 

  • Lease agreements typically refer to persons (rather than people), so that the agreed-upon conditions, rights, and responsibilities apply to individuals and business entities alike. 

Public Notices 

Public notices are typically issued by a government entity or distributed by a person or business as part of a legal proceeding. These documents are written in a very formal manner that includes legalese, so the word persons is often included.

  • Public notices that have to be filed as part of bankruptcy proceedings use the word persons to refer to creditors who must be notified that the individual or organization is declaring bankruptcy. 

  • The word persons would be used in a formal notice of order to vacate a building or other premises due to hazardous conditions. In addition to being delivered to tenants, this type of notice would also be posted on the door to prevent others from entering. 

Choose the Correct Word

When you are speaking or writing about more than one person, it’s important to use the correct terminology. In almost every situation, the word people is the best term to use when referring to multiple individuals. Now that you understand people versus persons, take the time to further improve your grammar and language usage skills by mastering the difference between affect and effect and further versus farther.

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