Melanie Spiller & Coloratura Consulting
A Tonic for Ramshackle Wordsmiths
Copyright Melanie Spiller 2011. Do not copy without permission.
Persons versus People and Bad Signs

Lately, I’ve been riding public transportation and the signs on or seen near these conveyances drive me nuts. I’ll quote a couple of signs in this blog for entertainment purposes, and then I’ll explain the logic behind why one of them drives me silly in my usual useful and edifying kind of exposé.


Most of the problem with signs is a lack of punctuation. Sometimes, a new line implies concluding punctuation for the previous line, and sometimes it doesn’t. In the following example, you’ll see that apparently, some trains are naughty and do not color between the lines. I’m not sure that trains go slowly enough to read these particular signs—as if they can read—which say, using several lines of text, lots of inexplicable capitalization, and a notable lack of punctuation:


Caution Fast Moving Trains Stay Back of Yellow Line


Does that mean that people should be on the other side of the yellow line to avoid incautious fast moving trains that stay behind the yellow line? How are we to interpret which side of a line is the “back” of it?


Then there are the signs that make you wonder whose road it is and what kind of toll are they willing to extract to let us drive on it:


Yield Children


It just seems so threatening. I don’t have any children, but if I did, it would take something stronger than an anonymous yellow sign to make me hand them over.


This last one isn’t funny, but it provides grist for the word-usage mill.


Please reserve these seats for seniors and persons with disabilities.


I’m a little bothered about the indeterminate word “seniors.” High school or college seniors get priority seating? They probably mean “senior citizens.” But if they’re being so euphemistic, why do they use the uncomfortable word “persons.” It seems so stuffy somehow, like saying “men and females” (which is also not parallel) or even “males and females” when you’re not talking about wildlife on the Kilimanjaro plains. But is it really wrong?


I did a whole mess of research, and what I came up with is that it’s not wrong, exactly, but it’s not usual.


Here’s an analysis:


According to both Webster’s and the American Heritage dictionaries (paraphrased and combined), the word person is a noun. It means:

1.   A living human being

2.    An individual or specified character

3.    The composite of characteristics that make up an individual personality; the self


It is perfectly acceptable to make person plural by adding an S at the end. Person seems to have more to do with the personality aspects of being human than the human aspects alone. Roget’s Thesaurus lists: human form, role, someone, and individual. The Synonym Finder lists: human being, being, creature, mortal, life, member of the human race, entity, soul, and spirit.


The AP Style Guide says to use person when speaking of a single individual. Persons (as a plural) should be used only when it is in a direct quote or part of a title (such as the Bureau of Missing Persons).


According to both Webster’s and the American Heritage dictionaries (paraphrased and combined), the word people is also a noun, but it’s a plural noun. It means:

1.    Human beings considered as a group or in indefinite numbers.

2.    A body of persons living in the same country, under one national government; a nationality.


Then American Heritage goes one further and adds a usage note:

People is a collective noun that cannot be used as a substitute for persons when referring to a specific number of individuals. Persons is used in quasilegal contexts, but it is pedantic to insist on it.


It is rare to make people plural by adding an S, but it’s not unheard of if you’re talking about the various human cultures that inhabit the Mongolian Prairie or something like that. People seems to have more to do with individuals being part of a specific collective than having individual characteristics (which appears to be where the emphasis for persons lies).


The AP Style Guide says to use people for persons in all plural uses.


For people, Roget’s Thesaurus lists: population, kinfolk, family. The Synonym Finder lists: humans, human race, members of the human race, humankind, mortals, persons, souls, men, women, children, individuals, and everybody.


In “The Careful Writer,” Theodore M. Bernstein says that people preceded by a number used to be forbidden and the less nit-picky writers progressed from that to not using the word at all. The rule, according to Bernstein is to use people for large groups and persons for an exact or small number. Strunk and White mentioned it in “The Elements of Style.” They agreed that persons should be the plural of choice when an exact number is involved, reserving people for broader statements. As reasoning, they cite: “If of six people, five went away, how many people would be left? One people?” Bill Walsh, in “Lapsing into a Comma,” says that’s a flawed argument because you can’t just do away with irregular verbs. If one of two sheep wandered off, you’d still have one sheep. There was concurrence in “Modern American Usage” by Bryan Gardner, but few other resources even mentioned it.


I surfed the Internet for an intelligent discussion to no avail. The best I found was this, from

Generally, people is the plural of person. "Peoples" can refer to a group or groups of culturally defined groups, as in the "peoples of eastern Europe." The choice between "people" and "persons" is not always easy, though. There used to be a rule that persons is used when speaking of a number of people who can be counted and people is used when speaking of a large or uncounted number of individuals.


There are fifteen persons on this committee but three hundred million people in the United States.

We can put twelve persons in each lifeboat.

How many people visit this mall every year?


According to Burchfield in “The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage,” the plural form persons is slowly retreating, and people is now widely used in whatever circumstance we need the plural of person.


So it looks like my discomfort is partially because persons is awkward in this construction and partially because it’s falling into disuse. And it’s because the person who might need the seat belongs to a group of people who might need the seat.


Just as a quick aside, the terms first person and third person have nothing to do with an actual person. First person means that you are writing from your own perspective (“I did this,” and “you do that”). Third person means that you are writing from the perspective of someone else (“he knew that his days were numbered with Roman numerals”). The expressions come from the order of conjugation; I am, you are, he/she/it is. You can’t really write from second person. You can only write as yourself talking to someone else, or projecting yourself into another’s perspective.