When should you use “people” and when should you use “persons”?
Short answer: you should almost always use “people”.
A controversy sprang up during the 19th century, according to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, when a few people – or persons – started insisting on a difference. “People”, they said, was for talking about a population or humanity in general, but when talking about a specific group you should use “persons”.
The exact nature of the imagined rule varied from commentator to commentator: some said “persons” should be used after specific numbers (“23 persons”), others said it should also be used after approximate round numbers (“more than a thousand persons”), others still said it should also be used after modifiers like “many” and “several”.
This idea, in one form or another, made it into various style books and writing guides (mostly American) up to around the 1980s, but it is now almost dead and you can safely ignore it – as Chaucer, Shakespeare, Defoe, Dickens, Disraeli, Wells, Hemingway and others ignored it.
The people are rising up
Looking at the Google Books database, I found that “two people” has risen in popularity, overtaking “two persons” around 1950. “Three people”, “four people” and “five people” took the lead over their rival forms around 1975, “ten people” around 1970, “hundred people” around 1910 and “thousand people” around 1890. “Some people” and “many people” went ahead by 1880, “several people” around 1970.
The Victorian commentators clearly noticed a tendency for “persons” to be used more often than “people” in certain contexts. So, gripped by the delusion that a word with more than one use is an abomination unto God, they decided that the tendency should become law.
It didn’t. The opposite happened.
The Corpus of Contemporary American English, covering usage from 1990 to 2012, has “two people” ahead of “two persons” by a ratio of more than 30 to 1.
Trying to prove a point
The only argument I’ve found for this distinction (as opposed to people saying “It just isn’t done that way!” when manifestly it is) comes from William Strunk in 1918:
The word people is not to be used with words of number, in place of persons. If of “six people” five went away, how many “people” would be left?
If the sense of absurdity he’s trying to create isn’t coming across strongly enough, you can look at later editions, updated by EB White, where this line appears as:
The word people is best not used with words of number, in place of persons. If of “six people” five went away, how many people would be left? Answer: one people.
Well, golly gosh. That clinches it. But in fact Strunk and White have undersold their case. This is really an argument against all irregular plurals. Look:
If of “six children” five went away, how many children would be left? Answer: one children.
Absurd! And to be honest, really it’s an argument against plurals of any kind:
If of “six cats” five went away, how many cats would be left? Answer: one cats.
Absurd! Just not in the way Strunk and White think. Their procrustean tomfoolery proves nothing.
I can’t find a single contemporary dictionary that maintains the rule. The nearest is this usage note from Oxford Dictionaries:
The words people and persons can both be used as the plural of person, but they have slightly different connotations. People is by far the commoner of the two words and is used in most ordinary contexts: a group of people; there were only about ten people; several thousand people have been rehoused. Persons, on the other hand, tends now to be restricted to official or formal contexts, as in this vehicle is authorized to carry twenty persons; no persons admitted without a pass.
But even in those official contexts, “people” would work fine.
Garner’s Modern American Usage (2009) says that “twelve persons on the jury seems stuffy to many readers, and most native speakers of [American English] would say twelve people on the jury. In contexts like that, people has long been used and is the more natural phrasing.”
Jeremy Butterfield’s new edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage (2015) says that “persons, whether preceded by a numeral or not, is tending… to yield to people, and to retreat into somewhat restricted, mostly (semi-)legalistic use”. He means phrases such as “committed by person or persons unknown” and “hidden on their persons”. There, “people” would be odd.
So, if you’re writing a police report (update: or in certain other legal contexts), you may want to use “persons”. Likewise if you’re writing about grammar (first, second and third persons) or Christian theology (the three persons of the Trinity). And likewise if you’d like to sound unusually formal or old-fashioned.
Otherwise: power to the people.