The meaning of words seems to change every 10 years or so. And while the meanings for some words change, others fall out of use because we consider them too formal. “Persons” fall into the latter category.
Yes, it is correct to say “persons” if you use it in the right context. “Persons” is one of the plural forms of “person,” but we only use it when writing legal documents, in law enforcement, or when referring to a group of humans as individuals and not a unit.
In this article, we will explore the right and wrong ways to use “persons” and other words you can use instead of “persons.” We will also explain the difference between “persons” and “people” and how to use countable nouns.
What Does “Persons” Mean?
“Persons” is one of the plural forms of “person,” which means an individual or human being (source). English derives “person” from the Latin word “persona,” which means “human being or assumed character,” and the French word “persone,” which means human being (source).
“Persona” also meant “a mask or false face” at one time because, in Roman theater, actors often wore masks or some type of head covering.
“Person” is a countable noun, which means you can count it using numbers. However, it has two plural forms: “persons” and “people.”
How Do You Use “Persons”?
“Persons” is the plural noun form of “person,” which means you can use the word in the same way you do any plural noun. It is a common, countable noun that follows simple grammar rules and will require a plural verb.
We can use “persons” whenever we refer to more than one “person.” However, for many people, “persons” is a strange word to hear because, unless you work in the legal world, you aren’t used to hearing it. Once upon a time, English speakers used it more widely than “people,” but today, that isn’t the case.
Now, we most often use “people” as the plural for “person.” “People” is an exception to normal plural rules because it doesn’t simply add an “s” to the existing noun and is one of those we must learn, such as “child/children,” “mouse/mice,” etc.
“Persons” is a countable noun, which means it is a noun that we can count. We often use countable nouns with quantifier or quantity words because they show how we should count the noun.
For example, we may say, “the police were looking for the five persons who saw Mary before the incident.” In this case, the quantifier “five” tells you how many individuals the police were looking for.
When Can You Use “Persons”?
You can use “persons” in two main circumstances: in a legal document and when speaking about a group of individuals. When writing public policies and rules, you can also use the word to ensure absolute clarity.
We would mainly reserve “persons” for legal writing. In this case, we need to be clear that we refer to several separate individuals and not a collective whole.
According to the law, “person” can refer to an individual human being or a corporation having the same rights and obligations as a person (source). A corporation is a legal entity or a legal person because it can do what a person can do, like sue, sign, and create contracts and own property.
We would most often use “persons” when we need to formally specify that we are referring to more than one individual. The following sentences demonstrate the use of this word:
- There are hundreds of missing persons following the floods.
- This department deals with displaced persons.
- Only eight persons are permitted in the elevator.
In What Context Can You Use “Persons”?
When writing a legal document or public notice, you can use “persons” in a context where you are referring to more than one individual. We would usually use “persons” in a formal or legal context.
When writing public notices, rules, and regulations, we would view the group the rules are for as a group of individuals and not as a unit, so you use “persons.” Consider the examples below.
- Any persons found eating in the library will be escorted from the premises
- This notice informs all persons that this is a dangerous area.
- All persons must report to the site office on arrival.
In legal documents, the law uses “persons” because it can refer to a natural person (human being) or a legal person, which includes entities that have the same rights as a natural person (source).
You can also use “persons” instead of people in a formal way, although it may prompt someone to try and correct your grammar. If speaking about a group of individuals, you could use “persons.”
Using “Persons” In a Full Sentence
Again, if you write legal documents or talk about a group of individuals, you can use “persons.” You can also use “persons” when writing a policy or a public notice.
Here are some examples:
- Jack Levi and his brother Tom were persons of interest in the murder of Colt Dunn.
- Any persons caught eating or drinking near the pool will be banned.
- There are eight missing persons cases in the small town of Kent.
- Four persons that ate the shrimp salad got food poisoning.
These examples show the different ways “persons” function today. Here, the word is in legal contexts, public notices, or official reports. Although not technically wrong, we would be unlikely to use “persons” in casual everyday conversation.
When Not to Use “Persons”
You don’t use “persons” when talking about a group collectively. You would use “persons” only when referring to more than one individual. In contrast, you use “people” rather than “persons” when referring to a group as a whole or to an ethnic group or nationality.
Here are some examples of the wrong way to use “persons”:
Incorrect: The persons that live in the house across the street are quiet.
Correct: The people that live in the house across the street are quiet.
Incorrect: Five persons came to the party dressed as nurses.
Correct: Five people came to the party dressed as nurses.
Incorrect: The Indigenous persons of the world are often overlooked.
Correct: The Indigenous people of the world are often overlooked.
What Can You Use Instead of “Persons”?
If you are writing legal text, talking about a group of individuals, or writing policies or procedures, you should use “persons.” However, if your situation doesn’t fall into those categories, there are other words that you can use.
In the right circumstances, you can use “people.” “People” refers to a group as a collective unit instead of individuals.
If you are talking about a group collectively, you can use “people” or its synonyms. For instance, if you are talking about a community, you can use:
If you are talking about people while referring to human beings, you can use:
And if you are talking about a group that is descendants of the same ancestor, then you can use:
Which Is Correct: “Persons” or “Person’s”?
This depends entirely on how you are using the words. “Persons” is one of the plural forms of “person,” while “person’s” is the possessive form of “person.” Therefore, you do not use the words in the same context.
Again, you use “persons” when referring to a group of individuals and in legal documents. However, you’ll use “person’s” when you want to show ownership.
If you would like more information on using plural and possessive nouns, you can read another one of our articles, “Kids’ or Kid’s: Singular, Plural, and Possessive.”
For example, let’s examine the following sentences:
- That person’s hat flew into my yard.
- Persons unable to comply will be escorted from the premises.
In the first sentence, we use “person’s” to show ownership. A person owns the hat, so “person’s” is the right word, especially if you don’t know their name.
The second sentence exemplifies using “persons” in legal documents and policies and has nothing to do with ownership. The above sentence is clearly part of a building’s policy, so you would use “persons” and not “person’s.”
“Persons” vs. “People”
One thing that many people find irritating about English is that so many words have the same meaning. “People” and “persons” are both the plural form of “person.” While there are subtle nuances in their meanings, they mean the same thing for the most part (source).
As we have already discussed, “persons” works in legal documents, formally and when speaking about a group of individuals. “People” means “multiple humans or men and women.” It comes from the Latin word “populous,” which means “a people or nation, multitude, or crowd.”
Since the 18th century, linguists have debated when it is correct to use “people” vs. “persons,” though we have largely settled on using “people” in the past few decades. Meanwhile, we reserve “persons” for particularly formal situations.
Countable nouns like “person” occur in specific units, and we can modify them with numbers, like one dog, two lizards, four pictures, or five books (source). You use singular countable nouns with singular verbs and plural countable nouns with plural verbs.
- Alice already had a lizard, but she wanted another one.
- Mark placed five books on the table.
- She held several pictures in her hand.
- Four dogs stood on the curb, sniffing each other.
What Are Mass Nouns?
In contrast, mass nouns or uncountable nouns are those you can’t count with numbers because they are indivisible (source). In American English, we treat mass nouns as singular and use them with a singular verb.
Unlike countable nouns, we cannot modify mass nouns with quantifiers like “few” or “many” or use them with an indefinite article. However, we can modify mass nouns we can weigh or measure using a number.
There are many things that you use in your day-to-day life that fall into the category of mass nouns — for instance, water. You can’t count water, and there is typically no plural form of water either.
Therefore, water is an uncountable noun, along with “cheese,” “garbage,” “information,” “bread,” “coffee,” and “furniture.”
- The water in the lake dried up.
- The coffee was robust and had some caramel notes.
- Bread is her favorite food.
- They had to pick up the garbage in the yard.
- The new furniture looked perfect in the living room.
- She loved cheese so much she put it on everything.
As we stated above, uncountable nouns are singular, and we use them in combination with singular verbs. But other words in the sentence can answer the question of “how many?”
- I had to drink four glasses of water before I left the house this morning.
- There were three pieces of garbage in my yard.
- She had six cups of coffee this morning, which explains her jitteriness.
- The piece of furniture was too big for the room.
Not to be confused with mas nouns, collective nouns are nouns referring to a collection of people or things. In American English, we treat these nouns as singular, and we use them with singular verbs and pronouns.
But that isn’t the case with British English, where hearing the plural form of collective nouns is quite common. This article was written for strategiesforparents.com.
For example, let’s look at the following sentence:
- The team is going to play the game.
“Team” is a collective noun referring to a group of players. However, in British English, “The team are going to play the game” is perfectly normal.
Language is fluid, ever moving and evolving as time marches on. The words we say today may disappear in the next 20 years, or they may take on a new meaning. “Persons” is proof of this, along with other long-forgotten words.
Once upon a time, we used “persons” more often than “people,” but today, that is not the case. Most people only see the word “persons” when reading a legal document or a public policy. These days, “people” is the main word used when referring to more than one person.
As we have mentioned above, “person” is a countable noun with two plural forms, “people” and “persons.” You use “persons” when writing legal documents, public policies, or rules and when referring to a group of individuals. “People” works in most other circumstances.
Knowing when to use certain words can be difficult to discern, but remember, if saying “persons” doesn’t feel right or you need a collective noun, you should use “people.”