Trent Armstrong (our former Modern Manners Guy) sent me a picture of a sign that mixed up the words “personal” and “personnel.” That’s one I hadn’t seen before. It read, “Keep Out. Thunderbird Personal Only.”
‘Personal’ versus ‘personnel’: the root
“Personal” and “personnel” have the same Latin root — “personalis” 1,2 — which means that knowing the root is no help if you’re trying to remember the different spellings.
‘Personal’ versus ‘personnel’: the definitions
“Personal” relates to your person or your body, or implies a sense of closeness. For example, if you are someone’s personal friend, you’re suggesting that the two of you are closer than just casual friends; and if you have a personal favorite, “personal” just adds emphasis. (Some people may even argue that “personal” is redundant in the phrase “personal favorite.”) A personal affront is an insult directed specifically at one person. You get the idea.
When you refer to “personnel,” you’re talking about a group of people, usually people who work at a company or for the military. “Personnel” can also be the name of a department that manages a company’s employees and can be used as an adjective to describe situations related to employees (“After the confetti incident, we had to make some personnel changes”).
‘Personnel’: singular or plural?
“Personnel” can be both singular and plural. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage and Dictionary.com say some people object to “personnel” being plural, but that the plural use is widespread and acceptable. (In fact, some writers also objected to the word in general for the first 50 to 100 years after it was introduced to English from French in the early 1800s.) 3,4
Modern style guides suggest that when “personnel” is plural, it means “people,” as in “people at the company.” The singular use is less common, and pops up when you’re treating it as a collective noun similar to “staff” and “board.” Here are some examples:
- All personnel are required to wear galoshes on Mondays. (Plural, meaning roughly all people at the company are required to wear galoshes on Mondays.)
- Shareholders say the key point is how much personnel is retained after the cuts. (Singular, meaning roughly how much staff is retained.)
‘Personal’ versus ‘personnel’: a quick and dirty tip
You can remember that “personnel” means “many people” by noting that it’s spelled with more N’s than “personal”:
- Personal: One person, one n.
- Personnel: Many people, many n’s.
‘Personal’ versus ‘people’: plain language
And a final note, for those of you interested in writing with plain English, when you’re tempted to use the word “personnel,” ask if it would be simpler and more clear to use a word such as “people” or “workers” instead.
If you found that segment interesting, check out episode 865 too where we talked about “material” versus “materiel.”
1. personal. Merriam-Webster. (accessed August 14, 2023).
2. personnel. Merriam-Webster (accessed August 14, 2023).
3. personnel. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage. Springfield: Merriam-Webster. 1994, p. 733.
4. personnel. Dictionary.com. Dictionary.com Unabridged. (accessed August 14, 2023).
An earlier version of this article appeared February 4, 2012.