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I was translating a sentence for school en Español and I came across the word "people." I looked it up on Google Translate and it gave me "personas" and also "gente." What is the difference between the two, and the use case for each of these nouns?

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There is a third translation for People: Pueblo (in the sense of nation) for example "One of the guiding mantras of the twentieth century was the self-determination of peoples" or "People's Republic of China" –  DeStrangis Jan 28 '13 at 11:26
Note that gente does not have a plural form, even though some people use it. It is wrong and may make you sound illiterate. –  alonso.torres Feb 11 at 22:20
In México there is a common phrase to refer to someone as being buena gente, which means someone is good, nice, trustable: Conocí a Juan, parece que es buena gente. can be translated as I met Juan, he seems like a nice guy.. However, there is no such phrase as mala gente, it is only used in the positive way. –  alonso.torres Feb 11 at 23:17
I'm sorry, the phrase mala gente does exist, it's just is much less common to hear. There's even a song by colombian singer Juanes called Mala gente –  alonso.torres Feb 11 at 23:25
@alonso.torres that is wrong. Could you indicate where on lema.rae.es/drae/?val=gente does it specify that gente does not have a plural? "gentes" may not be common, but it can be used as "pueblos" (groups of people): "Los pueblos del oriente" == "las gentes del oriente". Uncommon, but not incorrect. –  Adriano Varoli Piazza Apr 4 at 14:45

3 Answers 3

up vote 13 down vote accepted

The distinction is easier to see when you consider things in terms of countability. In this sense, personas is the plural of persona, refers to many people, and can be used when counting. On the other hand gente is a singular noun, refers to a group of people or many people in general and usually isn't used when specifing numbers.

Example in terms of counting:

○   "Hay veinte personas en esa casa." => "There are twenty (individual) persons in that house."

X   "Hay veinte gente en esa casa." => "There is (a whole of) twenty people in that house."

Example in terms of not counting:

○   "Toda la gente está esperando pacientemente." => "All (of) the people (as a whole) are waiting patiently."

One last thing to note is that while gente isn't interchangeable with personas, the opposite isn't necessarily true. In cases where emphasis or more formality is desired, personas can be used without specifying a number. Thus in the second example, the sentence could also be written as:

○   "Todas las personas están esperando pacientemente." => "All (of) the (individual) persons are waiting patiently."

This is perfectly valid, but sounds a bit awkward for daily use. Regional usage will differ in this fact, I'm sure. That said, personas can make a good fallback if you're unsure whether or not you should use gente.

I hope this helps! :)

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That helped a lot! Thanks so much!! –  daviesgeek Apr 11 '12 at 2:08
I just wanted to point out that "Todas las personas están esperando pacientemente" (marked there as wrong) is a perfectly valid Spanish sentence. –  Telaclavo Apr 12 '12 at 14:55
@Telaclavo It was never my intention to make it seem like that sentence was incorrect. I reorganized the answer a bit and I think it's cleared things up. Anyways, feel free to edit it more if you still don't think it's clear enough. :) –  Miguel Apr 12 '12 at 19:48
@Miguel I said it because there was an "X" just before the sentence, and thought that it could mislead someone. Thanks. –  Telaclavo Apr 12 '12 at 20:48
+1 I couldn't have explained it better. Good answer. –  alonso.torres Feb 11 at 23:30

Gente is called a "collective" noun, for "people," in general.

Persona(s), on the other hand, refer to INDIVIDUAL "people."

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Creo y espero no equivocarme, que la palabra "gente" siempre se ha referido a una multitud o a mas de una persona. Si yo digo, tu, (o en mi caso) vos sos una buena persona, sería, para mi modo de ver las cosas y mas que nada y MUY importante, lo que me enseñaron en la escuela, es mas que equivocado decirte que vos sos buena "gente".

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