People persons

The plural of person is people (except in legalese and occasional old-fashioned texts).

There’s no two ways about this: I could go for weeks on end without saying the word persons. Despite the fact that persons and people have different origins, the latter is the de facto plural in practice. So you should restrict persons to:

  • legalese, e.g. “by a person or persons unknown”, particularly where you could substitute individuals
  • pseudo-legalese regulations, e.g. “max. 8 persons” in a lift
  • in other writing, even when it’s formal and scientific, people is the correct option and persons is in the wrong register
  • (note: a people is also correct, meaning a tribe or nation. This is a singular noun for which the plural is peoples)

It’s not the only case of words that originally had different origins getting mixed up. The past tense of go is went, for instance, of which the present now only exists in phrases like “wend your way”. And the verb “to be” is a complete pig’s ear – in Dutch too (zijn, ben, is, was).

Prevalence: very high. There seem to be some Dutch writers who have been taught that people is slangy and informal. That’s simply not true.
Frequency: high. Widespread in all sorts of contexts.
Native: no. In everyday speech and writing, it’s always people.

Published by Mike Wilkinson

Twenty years of translating and editing Dutch into English, as well as writing and publishing in English.

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