## "Persons" versus "individuals"

6

In Italian, the equivalent of person is persona, whose plural is persone; there is also another word that could be used instead of persone (gente) but that is not the plural of persona. It cannot be used as simple replacement of persone, as I cannot say ho visto quattro gente for "I saw four people," but I must say ho visto quattro persone.

In my English classes, I was taught that people is the plural of person, and that is the word I should use.
Google Translate, when I ask the translation of persone, it translates it as people, but looking at the alternatives it has (by clicking on the translation), I see:

• Persons
• Person
• Individuals

I find strange it suggests person, but I take Google Translate suggests also the singular of the word for which the translation is asked.

Is persons ever used in normal conversations? Being Italian my first language, I would be use persons as plural of person, but that is not what I was taught.
Is there any case where individuals is preferable to people, or persons? Suppose I want to say "I saw four people"; could I say "I saw four individuals"? Does the last phrase have a particular meaning, for example "four suspects" or "four people that came from different places, and randomly joined"?

2Persons is very rare in normal English speech. Mostly you only come across it in legal contexts such as The defendant conspired with a person or persons unknown to blow up the House of Lords. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica – 2013-02-10T18:18:53.963

2If you add a note about individuals, that would be an answer. :) – kiamlaluno – 2013-02-11T17:23:57.180

1In legal English a person could either be an individual (a natural person) or a legal person such as a corporation. In that context the plural of person is not people since not all persons are people :-). – Francis Davey – 2014-09-11T14:27:13.057

6

Persons is very rare in normal English speech. Mostly you only come across it in legal or other "official" contexts such as...

The defendant conspired with a person or persons unknown to blow up the House of Lords.
6 persons maximum/Licensed to carry 4 persons (notices on lifts/taxis).

In most normal contexts the plural of person is people. When making a restaurant booking, for example, you'd normally ask for a table for six people - if you said six persons that would suggest you're nervous, unfamiliar with such situations, and foolishly trying to sound "correct" in an inappropriate context. If it was a swanky restaurant they might just say they're fully booked because you sounded gauche.

Individuals is also relatively uncommon in speech, tending again to be restricted to official (particularly, written) contexts. Probably because of this, if you said you saw four individuals somewhere, it might well imply four suspicious-looking characters, since the phrasing is typical of witnesses giving evidence in court, rather than everyday conversation.

Note that individuals carries no connotations of each individual being significantly different to every other. Identical twins wearing similar clothes are still two individuals, if the context permits using the term at all.

There's more on this subject in Person, Persons, People, Peoples, which was asked previously on ELU, but for most purposes I suggest it's enough to note that the standard forms are person/people.

@fumbleFingers in french "person" has a warmer connotation than "individual", which sound a bit distant and cold (the latter is mostly use in negative context. eg. It will be use in court or by the police). Is it the same in English? – JinSnow – 2015-10-09T07:07:22.090

"If it was a swanky restaurant they might just say they're fully booked because you sounded gauche." Excellent plan to determine whether a restaurant is "up itself" -- use "persons" and see whether you don't get a table. A restaurant which refuses to cater to people who don't reach such standards is one I don't want to go to. Thanks for the tip. – Prime Mover – 2020-06-19T14:48:39.337

'Persons' can also be used in other contexts - for example, "5 of the men had knives concealed on their persons". – Damien H – 2014-10-13T05:35:49.403

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As far as usage is concerned, no doubt "people" has surpassed both "persons" and "individuals".

Related NGram

Personally, I feel "people" is the most common term people use in their conversation than both "individuals" and "persons". Yet I would like to add that people has more meanings than both persons and individuals. Besides being plural of "human beings" it also means

1) the members of a particular nation, community, or ethnic group

2) one’s supporters or employees

3) one’s parents or relatives

Whereas individuals only is used as the plural of "human beings". And persons has the following meanings besides being "plural of human beings":

1) Grammar- a category used in the classification of pronouns, possessive determiners, and verb forms, according to whether they indicate the speaker (first person), the addressee (second person), or a third party (third person).

2) Christian Theology- each of the three modes of being of God, namely the Father, the Son, or the Holy Ghost, who together constitute the Trinity.

So for obvious reasons they are less likely to be used in conversational/colloquial English.

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A quick note on legal usage. In law a "person" is a super-class of natural and legal persons. Natural persons are the equivalent of the civil law moral person, that is they are human beings recognised as such by law.

Legal persons are given their personality by law rather than by nature. Technically they are known in English law as "corporations" because they have been given a body ("corpor") for legal purposes.

In other usages "corporation" has a more restricted usage and usually refers to a subset of legal persons of a particular size of form. Most normal people would be surprised to learn that the Bishop of Durham was a corporation for instance.

In English law the word "individual" is often used for a natural person.

In this usage "persons" is the correct plural and "people" would be wrong. Corporations are person not people.

Note: to further confuse matters in US political discourse the phrase "corporate personhood" is not used to mean "the status of corporations as persons", which is its literal meaning, but to mean "the granting of certain rights to corporations which arguably should be restricted to individuals only".

This is far too technical for a non-native speaker to follow, even if what you say is true. I don't have time to scrutinize your whole answer, but consider explaining the term 'natural person', for example, so that your answer may be applicable to people who aren't lawyers. – Parallax Sugar – 2017-03-06T19:24:21.617

@LauraCookson My apologies. I was trying to supplement a comment in another answer that there was a technical legal usage which I was trying to explain. Can you suggest any edits to make my explanation more transparent? "they are human being recognised as such by law" is a bit clumsy. I am trying to get across the idea that a "natural person" is a human. But it is a definition, so am I right in understanding that your objection is not that I didn't explain what one was, but did not explain well enough (which is fair enough)? – Francis Davey – 2017-03-07T09:09:44.137

Have a look at my edits. I've tried to make it more understandable for people who aren't lawyers, bearing in mind that I am not a lawyer myself so feel free to change anything I've said that's incorrect! – Parallax Sugar – 2017-03-07T15:15:44.757

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Never say 'persons'. I think the only time you're likely to see that term used in real life is on the signs you see next to lifts, such as 'No more than 6 persons permitted', and even that is unlikely because signs on lifts usually have weight limits - e.g. "The elevator can hold no more than 300kg", or "300kg max". As some answers have already mentioned, 'persons' sounds pretentious and ignorant (as if you're trying to seem more sophisticated/ superior, than you really are).

Meanwhile, 'individuals' is a plural noun that is related to the singular noun 'individual', which is also an adjective meaning different/distinct from other people/things. The word 'individuals' is also fairly negative. Therefore, you should only really say 'individuals' if you are trying to be condescending (snooty) towards the people in question, or you are a policeman/ lawyer, describing a certain number of criminals. For example, "Yesterday, two individuals were spotted trespassing, just outside the..." and so on. But you are not a policeman, and it's bad to sound snooty, so don't say 'individuals'.

"Person" is the singular of "people", as you know. This is the word to use if you are describing one human being. E.g. "That person is one of the kindest people I have ever met". As for the plural noun "people", your English classes got it right: that is the word you should use to describe more than one person. E.g. "This morning, five people saw my new house".

One alternative to 'people' is the plural noun 'folk', which is more informal (this was an example from google) - "her parents were country folk". However, you should only use this word if you are very confident with the language, because otherwise you might use it out-of-context - e.g. it's wrong to say "This morning, five folk saw my new house", but that's not clear unless you have a good understanding of which words to use in particular situations.

In conclusion, you should stick with "people".