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Can we use "people" and "persons" interchangeably? I am not sure, but I feel like people should never be used to describe people you know or when you attach a number to it.

For example:

There are 3 people who are bachelors in my family.

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The word "persons" is used largely in formal writing, particularly in a legal context. It would pretty much never be used in informal speech or writing, at least not in US English. "People" would always be used in such situations. The word "persons" is most often used when writing of a limited, but perhaps indefinite, number of people. when speaking of large group, such as a nation, an ethnicity, or humanity in general, "people" would normally be used.

The idea that " 'people' should never be used to describe people you know or when you attach a number to it." is simply not correct, at least not in US English.

There are 3 people who are bachelors in my family.

Is a perfectly natural and grammatical sentence. If "persons" were used instead, it would sound a bit affected in informal speech or writing, in my view.

Fifty people were killed in the explosion.

would be a natural sentence in a newspaper report. "50 persons" would not.

Except in a strictly legal or other technical context, "people" can be used almost anywhere that "persons" is used.

Exception: In Christian theology, one writes "Persons of the Trinity" not "People of the Trinity".

People as a Plural of Person

Merriam-Webster gives as meaning 2 under Noun:

plural : human beings, persons — often used in compounds instead of persons

Dictionary.com gives as senses 1 and 2:

persons indefinitely or collectively; persons in general: to find it easy to talk to people;

What will people think?

persons, whether men, women, or children, considered as numerable individuals forming a group:

Twenty people volunteered to help.

The Cambridge Dictionary gives as the first meaning:

men, women, and children generally; pl of person:

  • There were a lot of people there.
  • Some people were hurt.

The Oxford Dictionaries says:

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

  • +1 I think that last paragraph is crucial for ELLers. – Lambie May 31 at 0:06
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No they aren't interchangeable. People is the plural of person, except when used as a legal term. In that case, persons are used to show the plural of people.

  • people is the plural of person? One person, two persons. – Lambie May 30 at 23:21
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    Yes, "people" is the plural of "person". – Karen927 May 30 at 23:26
  • @Lambie see the added section of my answer; "People as a Plural of Person" – David Siegel May 30 at 23:48
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Two side notes:

Persons sounds like a smaller number of people than people, and more formal. When you're talking about "people in general" you wouldn't use persons.

Also, to people can also be a verb: if something is peopled by a group of people, those people live in or are abundant in that place.

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