My friend Rico’s eight-year-old son, a highly intelligent boy, asked how the term people differs from persons. He finds people more appropriate than persons.
Let’s start with the dictionary meaning of these words. Person tends to refer to an individual–its Latin root is persona, which refers to a character or human being. So the perspective is individual, not collective. People comes from the Latin word populus, which leads to populace, so people generally refers to a group. The perspective is collective.
I think it’s a lot like the difference between everyone or everybody, on the one hand, and all, on the other hand. Everyone is a singular pronoun of reference; its perspective is on one body at a time– bawat isa, cada isa. Even if it includes every person in the entire group, the perspective is still on one individual at a time, thus, everyone, everybody, or everything. Contract this with all, a plural noun, which is lahatan–the whole, entire, and total.
The plural of person is persons.
People has become an aggregate noun so it’s always plural. (An aggregate noun is like the counterpart of a collective noun. Aggregate nouns are single collections made up of individual parts. However, unlike collective nouns, aggregate nouns usually use plural verb forms and have no singular forms.)
Through the years we started using people as the plural for persons–this has become acceptable to many, although the more appropriate plural term of person is still persons.
When do we use persons instead of people?
The usage of person tends to be formal or official in context, such as in signs like “Unauthorized persons, keep out.” Or when there is news that “police are on the lookout for three unidentified persons who…”
The use of people is more common; not so with persons. But both are perfectly all right. The thing with language is that it is a matter of convention and usage, so the more we use one term in this manner, the more that usage becomes the “rule.”
The New American Oxford Dictionary explains:
USAGE The words people and persons can both be used as the plural of person, but they are not used in exactly the same way. People is by far the more common of the two words and is used in most ordinary contexts: : a group of people ;: there were only about ten people ;: several thousand people have been rehoused. Persons, on the other hand, tends now to be restricted to official or formal contexts, as in : this vehicle is authorized to carry twenty persons ;: no persons admitted without a pass. In some contexts, persons, by pointing to the individual, may sound less friendly than people:: the number should not be disclosed to any unauthorized persons.
Here’s a great discussion on World Wide Words:
Modern style guides disagree, being able to quote many examples of the use of people as the plural of person in both situations, for example in sentences like “the plane crash killed 370 people”, and “Many people visit the park every day”. Though persons survives, it does so largely in formal or legal contexts (“Killed by person or persons unknown”, “This taxi is licensed to hold four persons”) and often seems awkward and old-fashioned. Where it survives it emphasises that each member of a group is being considered as an individual: “The nearest persons they can vent their feelings on are the ball boys and girls”, “Eight persons shared a single room”. From the evidence, it seems that the trend towards using people instead of persons is accelerating and that it may not be so long before persons vanishes from the language except in certain set phrases.
Photo credit: GVA