We know that these terms all refer to human beings in varying quantities, but what really is the difference between them? When should you use “persons” and when should you use “people” instead?
Persons Are Individuals
I think it’s safe to say that you know what a person is. You could say that there is one person standing in line at the bank or you’re waiting for a person to buy the last can of Coca-Cola at the corner store. You are referring to a single individual.
When you shift from singular to plural, you may then encounter the term “persons.” This would be used to refer to multiple individuals, but “persons” is used primarily in legal and official contexts rather than in casual speech and colloquial conversation.
For instance, an elevator may have a sign that says it only has the capacity for up to eight persons. A police report may say that they are still seeking persons of interest in relation to a crime. When using “persons,” you are emphasizing the individuality of the persons involved.
People Are Collectives
“But I thought people was the plural form of person?”
In everyday conversation, you can usually use “people” as the plural form of “person.” There is a very important difference to consider if you are using it in a more official or formal context, however. Whereas “persons” emphasizes individuality, “people” emphasizes the group as as collective.
Although it may not be an official rule, “persons” is usually only used to refer to a smaller group of people where you can count the individuals. “People” can be used for larger groups where it may be more difficult (or impossible) to count everyone to which you are referring.
In a casual sense, you could say that there were over one hundred people at BookCamp Vancouver. In an official sense, you could look at the official attendance records and say (hypothetically) that there were 125 persons at the unconference.
What About Peoples?
This may sound like a plural of a plural, but it actually works out as a plural of a singular, if that makes any sense. Again, this is because “people” can refer to a group as a unified collective.
For instance, you could refer to native peoples of Argentina. In doing so, you would be referring to the different ethnic groups, tribes, or other groups that call Argentina home. Each group is a singular entity. Several groups, then, are the “peoples.”
Clear as mud? That’s what I thought, even without considering slang and other colloquialisms like thanking your “peeps” for their support.