‘People’ or ‘Persons’? What’s correct?

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I have always been under the impression that people was the plural of person. Hence, when two individuals are doing something, they are referred to as people. “Those two people look alike.”

And yet, periodically I see the word ‘persons’ appearing here and there. I (erroneously) thought that ‘persons’ was allowed based on some prescriptivist rule, and was just there to annoy people.

As it turns out, I’m wrong. I shall quote from Daily Writing Tips:

There is some confusion regarding the two terms, especially because their meaning and usage suffered a mutation along the centuries. Both derive from Latin, but from different words.

Person derives from persona, which refers to an individual. People, on the other hand, derives from populum, and it refers to a group of persons sharing a culture or social environment.

Person is a singular form, and its plural is persons. Over the time, however, many writers started to adopt people as the plural form of person, and nowadays it is widely accepted. Notice that legal and very formal texts still use persons as the plural form.

One distinction that was proposed was to use persons as long as there was a countable number of individuals (e.g., 67 persons left the school) and people when such a number was large and indefinite (e.g., the people left the stadium quickly). The rule did not catch on, though, and some writers still use people even when there is a definite or small number of individuals.

Finally, people can also be used in the plural form (e.g., the peoples of Asia) when it refers to the different cultural groups that live in a certain region.

OK, so not only have I been wrong, but I’ve been completely wrong. In some ways I’m very traditional in my English usage, and get annoyed when people misuse or distort the meaning of certain words and expressions. In this instance, what’s actually “right”, i.e. the original way, is to use persons, as people and person don’t even have the same root word. This is somewhat troubling to me.

The rule of when to use less versus fewer seems similar in that it depends on whether it’s “countable” or not.

It’s “widely accepted” to use ‘people’ for the plural of person. I get that. Isn’t it actually wrong though? I think we end up in the same debate I was having yesterday with unlike/dislike and how the English language evolves, and for something to be “wrong”, is completely relative.

I’m torn on this.


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