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The People Versus Persons

Charles Skeete
(Terminology Update, Volume 34, Number 4, 2001, page 24)

I would like to know your point of view on persons. Hopefully I am not the only person who can’t stand this word. I realize it is widely used and probably correct, but why not use people?

This article was prompted by the quotation above, which clearly indicates that its author strongly objects to the use of persons, but not to its singular form person. This inconsistency is self-explanatory when one recalls that the term persons is used intentionally to emphasize that the subjects referred to are to be considered individually or are limited to a relatively small or exact number of individuals. It is also often used as a legal reference to human beings. People may be used synonymously in some contexts, depending on the level of language, but in many cases it cannot be considered an appropriate synonym. Examine the following sentences:

  1. As an employer, we welcome diversity in the workplace and encourage applications from all qualified women and men, including Aboriginal peoples, persons with disabilities, and members of visible minorities.
  2. The government promises to set up an on-line search site to help locate missing persons, lost loves, relatives or friends.
  3. A number of mountain rescues and lost-persons incidents were reported over the weekend.
  4. Let us never forget that in Canada women were considered persons only after 1929.
  5. In this context, an advisory committee is a group of persons selected to offer advice and counsel to the school and department regarding the vocational program.
  6. The project’s research specialists used the term "hard of hearing persons" to refer to individuals with any level of hearing loss, from mild to profound, whose primary method of communication is the spoken language.
  7. The job competition notice stipulated that all eligible persons are invited to apply, regardless of age, race, religion or persuasion.

In the aforementioned sentences, would people be appropriate? The term normally refers to persons in general and would certainly not convey the same message in these contexts. Here, the subjects referred to are individuals identified by a particular legal document, policy, report or directive. Thus, in example 5, to describe an advisory committee as "a group of people" is incorrect, just as it would be if a mob were described as "a large number of persons." In 6, substituting "hard-of-hearing people" would identify not only those persons referred to in the project, but persons from all over the world.

On the other side of the coin, consider the following examples normally encountered in general writing where persons would be incorrect usage:

  1. Despite her advanced years, my mother always found it easy to befriend younger people.
  2. What will people think if I come to work wearing baggy pants, with rings in my ears and nose, tattoos on my arms, my hair painted blue and a skateboard under my arm?
  3. People are always looking for a bargain at Wal-Mart.
  4. Despite mounting evidence in the case of "The People Versus Microsoft," people still choose Bill Gates’ products.

Could we substitute persons for people in these examples? No. These contexts do not suggest that the subjects are to be considered individually. They clearly illustrate that people has a general connotation, and is not interchangeable with persons.

Why not use people? The answer to this question is evident: people is not appropriate in all contexts, and the use of persons in certain contexts is legitimate and often necessary.

In conclusion, I would like to add that, although we frequently find ourselves using persons in administrative material, some may consider its use somewhat stilted and prefer people as the plain-language alternative. Note too that the following sources consulted indicate that the practice of pluralizing person as a substitute for people is prevalent mainly in formal, legal and bureaucratic writing: The Oxford Guide to Canadian English Usage, 1997; The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage, 1999; the New Oxford Dictionary of English, 1998; the Collins-Cobuild English Dictionary, 1995; and the Longman’s Dictionary of Contemporary English, 1987.