Is It People or Persons?

When I want to refer to more than one person, which word should I use: people or persons? The Writer's Digest editors answer that question in this Grammar Rules post.
Publish date:

When I want to refer to more than one person, which word should I use: Is it people or persons? The Writer's Digest editors answer that question in this Grammar Rules post.

Image placeholder title

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.


For the Travel and Nature Writer: Keeping Your Mind Sharp and Words Insightful

Dr. Caitlin O'Connell shares some insight for travel and nature writers, including how travel helps keep your mind sharp and words insightful, whether you're writing fiction, nonfiction, sports, politics, or something else entirely.


Olga Grushin: The No Man's Land Between Genres

Award-winning author Olga Grushin discusses what it meant to wade into a new genre and how she put her spin on the fairy tale retelling.

Poetic Forms

Rannaigecht Mor Gairit: Poetic Forms

Poetic Form Fridays are made to share various poetic forms. This week, we look at the rannaigecht mor gairit, a variant form of the rannaigecht.


The Writer, The Inner Critic, & The Slacker

Author and writing professor Alexander Weinstein explains the three parts of a writer's psyche, how they can work against the writer, and how to utilize them for success.


Todd Stottlemyre: On Mixing and Bending Genres

Author Todd Stottlemyre explains how he combined fiction and nonfiction in his latest book and what it meant as a writer to share his personal experiences.


Plot Twist Story Prompts: Take a Trip

Every good story needs a nice (or not so nice) turn or two to keep it interesting. This week, have a character take a trip somewhere.


Making the Switch from Romance to Women’s Fiction

In this article, author Jennifer Probst explains the differences between romance and women's fiction, the importance of both, and how you can make the genre switch.


Stephanie Wrobel: On Writing an Unusual Hero

Author Stephanie Wrobel explains how she came to write about mental illness and how it affects familial relationships, as well as getting inside the head of an unusual character.


Who Are the Inaugural Poets for United States Presidents?

Here is a list of the inaugural poets for United States Presidential Inauguration Days from Robert Frost to Amanda Gorman. This post also touches on who an inaugural poet is and which presidents have had them at their inaugurations.