Which Word Wednesday: People vs. Persons

By April 13, 2011 language No Comments

The more I learn about language confirms how little I know about language. Each time I grab one of my word usage books for selecting a Which Word Wednesday match-up, I am delightfully surprised by something I had never heard before. Such is the case for this week’s pair, people vs. persons.

As I flipped through Ron Evans’s The Artful Nuance, the entry for people/persons1 caught my eye. Here’s what it says:

People is a term collectively referring to human beings as against, say, dogs or lions: “Only people can become president.”

Persons signifies humans in their individualizing external aspects, including their bodies, features, and clothing. Further, one should use the word persons when specifying precise numbers: “There are seven persons in our party.”

Interesting, huh? People is by far the more commonly used of the two, but it seems persons would actually be appropriate in most cases. Somehow my ear and tongue are set to accept people more so than persons.

Both the Oxford American Dictionary and Dave Dowling (in The Wrong Word Dictionary) agree with Evans but confirm common usage favors people—the former, because persons sounds less friendly than people, and the latter, because “persons may be considered overly formal or haughty.”2

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What’s my WWW verdict? This is another case where current usage has become so ingrained that I am not sure I can retrain my brain. It’s hard to imagine that I will call in a dinner reservation and say, “Straza, party of four persons.” I think I am stuck.

What’s your verdict? Do you say people more so than persons? Share your comments and be sure to cast your vote in the poll.

Check out previous Which Word Wednesday verdicts here.

1. Ron Evans, The Artful Nuance: A Refined Guide to Imperfectly Understood Words in the English Language (New York, NY: Penguin Group, 2009), 156.
2. Dave Dowling, The Wrong Word Dictionary (Oak Park, IL: Marion Street Press, 2005), 175.

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