An editor in a discussion group I follow wondered today whether persons with disabilities or people with disabilities is the preferable construction. The responders overwhelmingly plumped for people, and in doing so they illustrated a sensitivity to shifts in the language.
Sticklers previously maintained a distinction between people, treating it as a mass noun identifying undifferentiated groups, and persons, treating it as a count noun indicating discrete individuals.
In The Careful Writer (1965), Theodore Bernstein writes of this distinction: “The use of people preceded by a numeral used to be verboten, especially in newspaper offices. From that prohibition it is only a short jump to considering people to be a naughty word. … The only rule has to be a general one, its application often dependent on the writer’s ear: Use people for large groups; use persons for an exact or small number.”
In Words on Words (1980), John Bremner agrees: “Use persons for a small or exact (note or) number, otherwise people.” He continues: “But how small is small? AP says persons ‘usually is used’ for ‘a relatively small number of people who can be counted.’ Well, how small is relatively small? And relative to what? Probably a good guide for this distinction is to consider a number below 50 to be small.”
But over time, persons has come to look formal and fussy, and the contemporary preference for a more conversational prose prefers people. That can be seen in what the Associated Press Stylebook currently advises: “Use person when speaking of an individual. … The word people is preferred to persons in all plural uses. … Persons should be used only when it is in a direct quote or part of a title as in Bureau of Missing Persons.”
It is a glorious day of sunshine and song when the Associated Press Stylebook prefers actual usage over a mossback rule, so go about your business with confidence, people.