Michael Eriksson
A Swede in Germany
Home » Language and writing | About me Impressum Contact Sitemap

Use and abuse of “people”

Executive summary

To summarize the key implications:

  1. Reserve “people” for uses like “the English people” and “government of/by/for the people”. Use other words, e.g. “persons”, in other cases.

  2. Never use “people” as a plural of “person”, even if you disregard the first item. (Ditto, “person” as a singular of “people”.)

  3. Never, ever use either of “people” and “person(s)” to imply “human(s)”, even if you disregard the first two items.

Main discussion

The word “people” is often used in a highly unfortunate manner, including as an absurd replacement for “human”. In some cases, the same applies to “person”, and the two are often interlinked in a manner almost as unfortunate.

At an extreme, I have had at least one sci-fi encounter where some particular extra-terrestrials were (a) considered human, because they were intelligent beings, (b) not considered people and/or persons, because they were not biological homo sapiens. This turns terminology on its head: Because they were not homo sapiens, a classification as “human” is nonsensical and contrary to the essence of the concept—but a classification as “person” would have been justified. (Whether these extra-terrestrials were also people will depend on factors discussed below. They almost certainly formed a people or were part of a people, however.)


The issue of exactly where to draw the biological lines for humans, e.g. whether someone needs to be specifically homo sapiens or whether some other homo species is sufficient, might be debatable. (Above, I go with “homo sapiens” simply for better recognizability.) Someone like Yoda, however, is certainly not human—and neither is a chimpanzee.

Sci-fi also contains some legitimate borderline cases, as with the half-human/half-Vulcan Spock; and there might be cases where some drift in terminology is contextually acceptable, e.g. in that a human–Klingon conflict might see some non-human referred to as “human” in specifically a political/military/whatnot human–Klingon juxtaposition. (Both are very different cases from the above.)

Even in allegedly scientific literature, it is not uncommon to see “people”, where “humans” (or some equivalent formulation) should be mandatory. Consider a book on zoology that contrasts “people” and “beetles” or a book on medicine that relates that an experiment has been performed on “23 people” with some outcome. However, we already have the well established and more precise word “human”, and there is nothing to gain by replacing it with “people”—excepting an extra letter, which is better viewed as a loss of brevity than a gain in anything at all. (More everyday formulations, e.g. “people eat pizza”, might be less problematic, but are still far from ideal.)

Then there is the issue of ambiguity. Not only does such use clash with more standard meanings of “people” (cf. below), but it is also ambiguous in its own right. To the latter, if the use were accepted: Already, we have a multitude of other potential “people” (and “persons”) in sci-fi and fantasy, and, for similar reasons, in science of a speculative nature, notably xenology (where “people” might with equal right refer to hypothesized intelligent aliens as to humans). In the real world, there might not currently be another reasonable implication of such uses of “people” than humans, but there is no guarantee that this remains the case in the future, e.g. because of contacts with alien civilizations or because great apes are granted personhood. Then there is the issue of current writings dealing with the past: Contrast a phrase like “people first arrived in Europe [...]” with “anatomically modern humans first arrived in Europe [...]” and, with a different implication, “members of the genus homo first arrived in Europe [...]”.


To avoid any misunderstandings: I consider such alien contacts extremely unlikely within my own lifetime—maybe, within the entire existence of humanity. However, they are certainly within the realms of the conceivable, and a good scientist should not use such sloppy language in a scientific work. Even a further disambiguation by e.g. “homo sapiens” or “homo sapiens sapiens” might be warranted over “human” in some cases.

As to apes, I make no statement about whether personhood would be justified, but I do note that others have proposed exactly personhood.

Throwing a further net, the plural of “person” is “persons”—not “people”. Even if we were to allow a very wide use of “person” and/or “people”, it would be idiotic to make the one an artificial plural of the other. Not only does a perfectly fine plural already exist, but the introduction of a highly irregular (in the grammatical sense) replacement can do nothing but cause problems. A further complication is that “people” by its nature is a singular, with its own plural, “peoples”, which makes it a poor fit for use as a plural. That “people” has a collective nature does not alter this, and it would be equally (un)justified to suggest e.g. “one person, two tribe” as “one person, two people”.


For the sake of precision: The issue of “people” in the sense of “more than one individual” follows below. Here, the issue is actual combinations of “person” and “people”, as in “one person, two people”, of which I have seen many examples over the years. Consider a hypothetical formulation like “Cars with two or more people may use the car-pool lanes. Cars with just one person must use the regular lanes.”. Worse, what about the police cliche “person or persons unknown” vs. an utterly ridiculous “person or people unknown”?

(The car example might give a hint as to how this idiocy has arisen, that it might be less an attempt to provide a plural for “person” and more a singular for “people”, if misconstrued or misused as a plural. However, I cannot recall ever seeing the issue phrased in another manner than “people”-as-plural-of-“person”, and the problems caused remain.)

Finally, we have the issue of “people” in the grouping/belonging sense used in e.g. “the English people” and “the French people” vs. the sense of “more than one human”. Here the ship might have sailed, and I once regularly used the latter sense, myself; however, this sense is an unnecessary source of confusion and ambiguity, and I recommend against it. The best replacement will vary depending on exact context and intent (also see excursion), but one of “persons”, “humans”, and “individuals” will often be a good choice. In some cases, “people” can be left out altogether, saving an unnecessary word, e.g. in that “many people” might be replaced by just “many”, and that “three redheads” often is a perfectly adequate substitute for “three redheaded people” (or, even, for “three redheaded persons”).


The former sense covers considerably more ground than e.g. ethnic groupings, but I find it hard to give a good definition. A key distinction might be the view of “people” as singular vs. plural. (Contrast e.g., allowing for some factual inaccuracy, “the English people lives in England” with “English people live in England”.) However, it might also be that some other criterion is more suitable and/or that a further subdivision would be advantageous. Consider e.g. the political “the people”, which I have not separated out, but which could be argued to be of a different nature than, say, “the English people”.

(Chances are that I had originally underestimated the plural issue. If I were to re-write this text from scratch, it might even base largely on exactly the singular–plural division.)

Excursion on use of more specific words

Regardless of general opinions on “people”, it can often pay to use more specific words, be it with regard to the cardinality of the group, the nature of the group, or the nature of the members of the group. Contrast e.g. “a trio of violinists took the stage” with “some people took the stage”.

Note that such choices will depend on context. In a Hamas terrorist attack, the number of victims is highly relevant, but the profession(s), and a great many other characteristics, of the victims can usually be left out. If someone wants to ascertain whether a store is open, the statement “there are five people in the store” is less helpful than “there are customers in the store” (the five could be employees)—numbers are less important than classification. Etc.

Excursion on other drifts/ambiguities/whatnots

There are likely other issues that could be interesting to investigate, and I make no claim of completeness. A particular candidate relates to whether a phrase like “the English people” should be based on criteria like ethnicity or citizenship (older uses likely favored the former; newer, the latter). Ditto ethnicity and religion for “the Jewish people”. (Also note a parallel drift in variations of “nation”.)

In such cases, I have either not done the legwork (including the legwork to identify cases) or currently hold no strong opinion, except in as far as I reject changes that serve some (usually Leftist/PC/Woke) political agenda.

Excursion on “people first” language

With an eye at my advancing age and my family’s medical history, I have done some recent medical readings. A particular annoyance is the ever-recurring awkwardness of “people with diabetes”, where a good writer would use “diabetics”. In addition to the above issues (“humans [...]” or, on the outside, “persons [...]” would be better), the absurdity of “people first” language raises its ugly head again. (And note how unfortunate the “people” in that name is.)


To those unfamiliar with “people first language”, I described it as

I.e. that statements like “he is autistic” are evil and that we absolutely, categorically must use awkward phrasings like “he is a person with autism”, because the former would reduce someone to a diagnosis (or some other, similarly weak, motivation).

in the context of the below quote.

This abomination is illogical and linguistically ignorant, shows a contempt for the readers and the persons referenced, through treating them like children, and can be considered offensive with a far greater justification than many alleged-as-offensive-by-the-Left formulations (including words like “diabetic”).

To quote from an older Wordpress text:

While I strongly believe that no aspect of life, e.g. a medical diagnosis, should define someone, “people first” language and similar ideas are idiotic and ignorant. A statement like “he/she/it is [a/an] X” does not imply that this is all there is. On the contrary, this is a standard phrasing in English. In my case, e.g., the following and many other statements simultaneously apply and each give a portion of what I am: I am (probably) an Aspie. I am a Swede. I am an author. I am a blogger. I am an immigrant. I am an emigrant. I am a libertarian. I am a book lover.

Moreover, “I am an Aspie.” would say more about me and be more closely tied to my inner workings than e.g. “I am a blogger.”, making it absurd to reject the former and accept the latter.

Similarly, without articles, that I am tall, bald, and handsome does not define me, so why should a claim like “Y is autistic” or “Y is blind” be seen as an all-encompassing definition of Y’s very being, as the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth? The very idea says more about the adherents of “people first” language than about the rest of the world.

Also note how absurd texts would be, if the idea of “people first” language were applied consistently. To revisit some examples from the quote, consider “people from Sweden”, “people who blog”, “people who have immigrated”, over respectively “Swedes”, “bloggers”, and “immigrants”. That it is not applied consistently sends a strong signal that being e.g. a diabetic would be something shameful, and/or that specifically the users of “people with diabetes” would consider it shameful, which raises some interesting questions about these users. (Cf. noa-names and similar phenomena. Using e.g. “persons” over “people” would be an improvement with an eye at the issues discussed in the main text, but would do nothing to remove the independent problems with specifically “people first” language.)


Conceivably, an analogy with other medical formulations could be argued, e.g. in that “X with high blood pressure” (or “[...] hypertension”) is unremarkable. Such cases are not entirely comparable, however, as no corresponding noun is in everyday use. If anything, the introduction of a shortening noun for these would be preferable to a circumlocution to describe diabetics and whatnots.

Similarly, I prefer “Swede” to “person from Sweden”, even though I am not aware of corresponding nouns for e.g. “person who lives in Germany” and “person born in [the Swedish town of] Avesta”, both of which describe me and both of which are relevant in many of the same contexts as “Swede”. (Imagine, if I had called this website “a person from Sweden in Germany” instead of “a Swede in Germany”...)