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.
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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.

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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 WritersDig@fwpubs.com 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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