The Difference Between People, Persons and Peoples
English plurals can be puzzling. The plural of goose is geese, but a snake needs to be on the lookout for mongooses. The plural of fish is fish, unless you’re speaking about different species of fish, in which case fishes is also correct. One group of words that can confound native and non-native English speakers alike is people, persons and peoples. Someone learning English is likely to be taught that the plural of person is people. However, that same learner might then be puzzled to hear a police officer speaking of persons of interest on the nightly news. To add to the confusion, they might come across the phrase peoples of the world in a text. So what difference, if any, is there between people, persons and peoples, and in which context should each one be used?
A Little Bit of History
While both person and people are of Latin origin, they are actually descended from different Latin words. Person comes from the Latin word persona, which originally referred to an actor’s mask but came to mean “an individual human being”. As for people, it comes from the Latin word populus meaning “group of people or nation”. Both words entered the English language through French in the Medieval period.
Persons and people coexisted as the plural of person throughout much of the history of the English language.
By no means, sir: Time travels in divers paces with divers persons.
Shakespeare, As You Like It (3.2.125) (1603)
I neither saw, nor desired to see any people…
Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe (1719)
Starting in the Georgian Era, a sort of pseudo-rule developed, with some guides saying that persons should be used when preceded by a number (There were three persons), while people should be used to refer to an undistinguished mass of individuals (The people flooded out of the theatre).1 However, this “rule” never gained much traction and over time people has come to be the standard plural form of person.
Down but Not Out
So why do we hear of persons of interest on the news then? Even though the pseudo-rule requiring the use of persons following a number has been abandoned, persons is still used in formal and official contexts, particularly in the fields of law and law enforcement. Individuals who disappear are referred to as missing persons, and suspects in a case will be called persons of interest. Persons is the plural where person has the specific legal sense of “an entity recognized by the law as having certain rights and duties.” It can be understood as stressing that the subjects in question are individuals, treating them as separate entities instead of as a collective.
In 1929, women were declared “persons” under Canadian law.
the liability of legal persons
Moreover, persons is the plural of the specific sense of person as “the body of an individual human being”.
Passengers found carrying weapons on their persons will be prosecuted.
Persons also continues to be used in certain set phrases such as displaced persons to refer to individuals uprooted by war. You might also come across persons if you’re reading a linguistics text in which person has the meaning of “one of three groups of personal pronouns and related verb conjugations”.
French pronouns in the first and second persons plural
The Plot Thickens
So what of peoples? If people is the plural of person, isn’t peoples the plural of a plural? Not quite. Remember how people originated from the Latin word populus meaning “group of people or nation”? This sense has been preserved in Modern English and people continues to function as a collective noun meaning “all the members of a tribe, nation, etc.”
the Russian people
the American people
a people of Ethiopia
Therefore, peoples is used to refer to two or more separate ethnic, religious, cultural or national groups.
the Russian and American peoples the peoples of Ethiopia
So when should you use people, persons and peoples? Outside of a legal context and certain set phrases such as missing persons bureau, it is always correct to use people as the plural of person. Persons, while not necessarily incorrect, can be perceived as either overly formal or slightly affected. As for peoples, it should only be used when referring to multiple ethnic, religious, cultural or national groups.
Vizetelly Frank H. A desk-book of errors in English, including notes on colloquialisms and slang to be avoided in conversation. New York, Funk & Wagnalls, 1920, p. 164. ↩