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The Difference between "Person," "Persons," "People," and "Peoples" (AUDIO Reading & GIFs Included)

Recommended level: Intermediate

Quick reference

  • "Person" is a singular noun. It refers to one human being.

  • "People" is the plural of "person" and is the plural form used in the vast majority of English conversations.

  • "Persons" is also a plural form of "people," but it is mostly used in formal contexts, especially in legal documents. It focuses on the individuals in a group.

  • "Peoples" is the plural of "people." It refers to different groups of people within a geographic region, in order to differentiate them based on culture and/or ethnicity. (Example: the native peoples of Canada)

One person. Two people. In the vast majority of English-speaking situations, these are the two words you will use when referring to one human being (a person), or more than one human being (people). Let's start by looking at some example sentences that use the word person:

"She seems like a really honest person."

"There's a person in the waiting room who's here to see you."

"Albert Einstein said that a person who never made a mistake never tried anything new."

"Did the police catch the person who did it?"

"Ben is the nicest person I've ever met."

When we see these examples, the singular case is simple enough to understand and accept. It is the plural cases that sometimes inspire questions in English learners.

The main question that learners ask is "Can I say 'two persons' for the plural case?"

Technically, yes, but in 99% of situations, you should use the word people when you refer to more than one person.

"But why?"

The word persons exists in English, but it is only used in formal contexts and is most often seen in legal writing. You might even see the word persons in some public places. For example, on a highway with an express lane (also called "a carpool lane"), you might see a sign that says "For vehicles with 2 or more persons." Here are some other relevant examples:

"The police have found five of the missing persons." (As an additional note to this example, many police forces have a missing persons team, department, or file.)

"This establishment does not serve alcohol to persons who are under 21 years of age."

"Persons who wish to appeal a decision may contact our complaints department."

"We reserve the right to deny service to persons under 18."

The basic difference between persons and people is that persons focuses on the individuals in a group while people focuses on the group as a whole. This is a result of their Latin roots. Person comes from persona, meaning an individual, while people comes from populus, meaning a group of individuals or a population. However, in contemporary English, people is the word that is used in the vast majority of cases. Note the following examples:

"There were a lot of people on the bus this morning."

"How many people work in your department?"

"Six people didn't come to school today."

"I have met a lot of interesting people in my life, but no one as interesting as you."

"They've already interviewed several people for the position."

"A lot of people don't have access to clean water."

"People should take care of each other."

Can you ask "How many persons work in your department"? Technically, yes, but most English speakers will find this strange, so it's better to just stick with using people, as that is the accepted standard plural form of person in most situations.

"So, what about peoples?"

Peoples is in the same family of plurals as fruits and fishes. It refers to different groups of people. We can talk about the native peoples of Canada when we are referring to the various groups of people in Canada who identify as native. In the same way, we can talk about the peoples of the Middle East, the peoples of Asia, or the peoples of the world. Here are a few relevant examples:

"The belief in personal freedom is important to all peoples."

"These types of arguments have been used to justify the genocide of indigenous peoples."

"The union of our two peoples will signal the beginning of a new era."

"Different peoples can coexist with one another if their coexistence is rooted in respect and tolerance."

Basically, if you want to differentiate between the cultures and ethnicities of people who live in a shared geographical region, you can use peoples. However, even in these cases, perhaps inaccurately, most people also just use the word people.

In short, the use of persons and peoples is rare in spoken English. You can use the plural persons, but it will sound a bit strange to people who speak English as their mother tongue. To be safe, in the vast majority of English speaking exchanges, use people when you are referring to more than one person.

Thank you for being one of the people who chose to learn with me! If you enjoyed this article and you would like to boost your English vocabulary, please consider purchasing one of my books. They are available in PDF, e-Book, and paperback formats. When you purchase one of my books, you are supporting my efforts to continue doing this for many more years to come. Until next time, thanks for learning and practicing your English with me.

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