Is It People or Persons?

Q: What is the correct way to write the following sentence: “Mark was one of the most generous persons I’ve ever met,”  or “Mark was one of the most generous people I’ve ever met”? Help!—Mark

A: Ironically, Webster’s New World College Dictionary’s definition of “people” uses the word “persons” five times. Why? The meaning of both words is nearly identical. Nearly.

Both refer to groups of humans, but traditionally “people” describes a general group while “persons” portrays a smaller, more specific group. For example: At least 500 people attended the concert. Here, the concert goers are a large general group. The nine persons on the baseball team are bald. The ballplayers mentioned in this sentence are specific, therefore persons is the better choice.

The use of the word “persons” isn’t too popular anymore, though, as references like the AP Stylebook and The New York Times recommend only using “persons” if it’s in a direct quote or part of a title (e.g., Bureau of Missing Persons).

Your best bet is to say, Mark was one of the most generous people I’ve ever met. But it’s a style issue, and as long as you abide by the distinctions above, “persons” can be an acceptable word choice. Unless, of course, your editor refers to the AP Stylebook as the “The Bible.”

Brian A. Klems is the online managing editor of Writer’s Digest magazine.

Have a question for me? Feel free to post it in the comments section below or e-mail me at with “Q&Q” in the subject line. Come back each Friday as I try to give you more insight into the writing life.

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5 thoughts on “Is It People or Persons?

  1. LuJean Bonge

    "Mark was one of the most generous people/persons I’ve ever met"

    Why not change it to:"Mark was the most generous person I’ve ever met."

    Wouldn’t that be correct and solve the problem?

    1. anearbyjosh

      I agree with avoiding the issue by trying to write it a different way. I think I’d go with “Mark was among the most generous people I had ever met.”

  2. Jane Thomas

    Do you have any advice on overcoming writer’s block?

    I am currently taking a course on this subject and wondered how

    professional writers deal with this common problem.


    Jane Thomas

  3. Shirley Newell

    I disagree. People is the proper word. Persons is a "coined word". I think it is worth knowing and remembering that the dictionary is not a book of correctness, it is a book of useage, i.e. ain’t.


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