Singular, plural, plural?, pluralish?
September 29, 2016 1:09 PM   Subscribe

What is the difference between person, persons, people and peoples, and is there a rule of thumb I can use to help choose the correct one?
posted by TheNewWazoo to Writing & Language (11 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
person - one singular unit of humanity :)
persons - multiple distinct humans
people - a group of humans
peoples - multiple groups of humans
posted by destructive cactus at 1:14 PM on September 29, 2016 [5 favorites]

destructive's rundown is accurate but I think that for "people" there is a second definition, which is the plural of person. So, for the first definition, "a group of humans," and example would be "the American people". For the second definition, when you say "some people like anchovies" you really mean "some persons like anchovies." You are not talking there about a "people" who like anchovies. This sense of people as a plural of person was not always standard, but has become so over time, to the point where "persons" sounds stilted and tends to be used mostly in legal writing.
posted by beagle at 1:30 PM on September 29, 2016 [2 favorites]

"Peoples" is almost always used to describe culturally or nationally distinct groups. You wouldn't use the word to describe (for example) two groups of people standing in a field. You would say "two groups of people", not "two peoples". You might, however, refer to "the peoples of Europe".

"Persons" is quite uncommon in everyday usage; it tends to be used when you are talking about a specific (but possibly unknown) set of individuals, and then only in formal contexts, such as legal language. You might see it used in phrases such as "The police are still searching for the persons responsible", whereas in everyday English you'd probably say "the people responsible".
posted by pipeski at 1:38 PM on September 29, 2016 [3 favorites]

Your rule of thumb is: person is the singular, people is the plural. Done.

Above answers are good for the other two. But, basically, if you have to ask, you probably shouldn't be using them, as their remaining uses are kind of specialized.
posted by floppyroofing at 1:45 PM on September 29, 2016 [6 favorites]

Businesses are legal persons in the USA, but they are not humans, and they are not people.

We use the plural of 'person' usually when we want to get at the concept of personhood, as opposed to a room full of humans, which we would call 'people'. There's also things like 'persons of interest', which is pluralized the same as 'sisters in law'.

For 'people' vs 'peoples', it may help (or hinder!) to think of fish and fishes. You have one fish, I have two fish, but when I went to the lake, I saw four different fishes.
posted by SaltySalticid at 3:48 PM on September 29, 2016

Begging to differ, me, I saw four different fish, or four different species of fish. Nobody would say four different fishes. I think the linked piece is bogus.
posted by beagle at 4:29 PM on September 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

Also, "my people" can refer to those related to me, by blood or by marriage. But, "you people" is a loaded phrase that must be used carefully or not at all.
posted by she's not there at 6:32 PM on September 29, 2016

Nobody would say four different fishes.

Marine biologists certainly do. In which instance it is similarly formal to the use of persons.
posted by deadwax at 7:21 PM on September 29, 2016

Ok, persons is kind of cold and detached, or has some connotation of objectivity. It's clinical. People has different connotations. It may be informal, or have some emotional weight, as in 'my people', 'you people' above.

Person can be neutral, or again, a bit detached. 'He had a handkerchief upon his person.' Used in that way it's also stilted and old-fashioned. But not every use of person is stilted! 'There was a person there who looked unhappy.' There's a lot of nuance to the usage you have asked about.
posted by glasseyes at 6:06 AM on September 30, 2016

My 'feel' is that 'some people like anchovies' is a general, unloaded term that refers to the group of humans who like anchovies, whereas 'some persons like anchovies' is a pointed comment (critique?) of known but deliberately unnamed specific individuals.
posted by freethefeet at 6:34 AM on September 30, 2016

There's also the colloquial usage of 'people' as a synonym for 'a person', as in: 'Jenny is good people.'
posted by Dragonness at 8:12 AM on September 30, 2016

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