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“Persons” vs. “People” vs. “Peoples”: Which Word Is The Right Choice?

Persons, people, and peoples: we know what they mean, but the relationship between them can be confusing. What’s the correct plural of personpersons or people? Why does people have its own plural?

Some of these questions have easy answers. But there are a number of nuanced aspects to their use, including those related to legal language, personal identity, and decisions about whether to emphasize individuals or groups. Then there are questions about capitalization, particularly for terms like people of color and Indigenous Peoples.

In this article, we’ll address the frequently asked questions surrounding persons, people, and peoples, including:

 

  • When should persons be used instead of people?
  • When should peoples be used instead of people?
  • When should peoples be capitalized?
  • What are the possessive forms of persons, people, and peoples?

⚡ Quick summary

Both persons and people can be used as plural forms of person. Persons is often used in formal, legal contexts to emphasize individuals as opposed to a group. People is the plural of person that’s most commonly used in everyday communication to simply refer to multiple humans. But people can also be used as a singular noun to refer to a population or particular community. The plural of this sense of people is peoples, and it’s often used in terms like Indigenous Peoples (in which it’s often capitalized since it refers to specific communities).

What is the plural of person? Persons or people?

Both persons and people are acceptable plural forms of person. They’re not necessarily always interchangeable, but there is some overlap.

The plural form people is more common. That’s because it can be used in any context to refer to multiple individuals—one person, two people (or 100 people or 8 billion people, etc.).

Usually, you’ll see persons in more formal contexts, especially in legal and technical text, as well as a few other situations.

When to use persons vs. people

Persons is especially associated with its use in legal language, in which it’s often used rather than people to ensure clarity by emphasizing that the text is referring to multiple individuals, as opposed to a group as a whole, as in Occupancy is limited to 200 persons or Any person or persons found to be in violation of these rules shall be prohibited from participating.

When persons is used in this way outside of legal texts, it has historically been regarded as overly formal or stilted—it wouldn’t be natural to say I invited 10 persons to the party, for example. Increasingly, however, there are cases in which persons is thought to be more appropriate than people for other reasons.

This is especially the case in situations when you want to talk about individuals within a group, rather than the group as a whole. In this way, persons is sometimes used with terms related to identity to emphasize individuality, such as saying Jewish persons instead of Jewish people. Regardless of intent, though, statements that are about individuals with a common identity can lead to overgeneralizations or stereotyping, so it’s always best to consider whether the individuals’ common identity is an essential part of what you’re trying to say. Choosing how to refer to people can also be informed by preferences around language that’s person-first (as in person with autism) or identity-first (as in autistic person).

More generally, the word people can also be a collective noun that refers to a specific group, nation, tribe, or community, as in We are a resilient people or The Statue of Liberty was a gift to the American people.

Learn more about collective nouns and how to use them.

When to use peoples

The word peoples is specifically used as the plural of people in its sense as a collective singular noun referring to a nation, or tribe, or other community, as in Indigenous Peoples or the many peoples of the world.

This usage emphasizes that you’re talking about several different specific groups that share a commonality. This can be important for clarity—the many people of the world means something different than the many peoples of the world.

In practical terms, using peoples in this way can help to prevent erasure and homogenization of groups that are often lumped together in ways that obscure their specific, complex identities. In this way, the term Indigenous Peoples emphasizes the vast diversity among the world’s Indigenous groups while also implying that there are, in fact, separate and distinct groups.

When should People and Peoples be capitalized?

You may have noticed that Peoples is capitalized in Indigenous Peoples in this article (and in other articles that use the term).

Capitalization is increasingly used as a form of respect and distinction for terms that relate to identity. (Dictionary.com capitalizes Indigenous across the dictionary when it relates to identity in this way, just as we do for the word Black.)

The word Peoples is most often capitalized when it follows a specific modifier, as in Hispanic Peoples and Indigenous Peoples. In cases when it’s capitalized, it is often due to the fact that it refers not to people in general but to specific, distinct communities.

Similarly, the term People of Color is also sometimes capitalized, though not always, likely because it is typically used as a broad term that encompasses more specific identities, including Black and Indigenous people, for example (relatedly, this is what’s represented in the first part of the the abbreviation BIPOC).

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What are the possessive forms of person, persons, people and peoples? Where should I put the apostrophe?

Is it people’s or peoples’? Person’s or persons’? All of these are valid possessives, but they indicate different things. Here is a breakdown of each possessive form, along with examples of their use.

Person

 

  • Possessive form: person’s (singular possessive)
  • Example: One person’s trash is another person’s treasure.

Persons

 

  • Possessive form: persons’ (plural possessive)
  • Example: The suspect confessed to the theft of several persons’ social security numbers.

People

 

  • Possessive form: people’s (plural and singular possessive)
  • Plural example: Tech support should be able to fix all six people’s issues by the end of the day.
  • Singular example: The French people’s love of fine food is well known.

Peoples

 

  • Possessive form: peoples’ (plural possessive)
  • Example: The goal of the festival is to celebrate many different peoples’ cultures.

Examples of persons, people, and peoples used in a sentence

Here are some examples of the ways that each word is commonly used.

 

  • We were hoping that at least one person would apply for the job, but we received applications from 60 people!
  • The person or persons who may have witnessed the incident are being sought by police.
  • My partner and I, as persons with autism, have a unique perspective on the issue.
  • The class will be focused on the history, peoples, and cultures of the region.
  • Indigenous Peoples’ Day is a time to honor Indigenous Peoples in the Americas and around the world.

This is a good time to review countable and uncountable nouns overall, so take a look!

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