Personal vs. Personnel: How to Choose the Right Word

Easily Confused Words With Different Pronunciations and Meanings

Personal and personnel

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The words "personal" and "personnel" are related in meaning, but they're not identical. They also belong to different word classes and they're pronounced differently. The adjective "personal" (with the stress on the first syllable) means private or individual. The noun "personnel" (stress on the last syllable) refers to the people employed by an organization, business, or service. Both words derive from the Latin word personalis, meaning of or related to a person.

How to Use "Personal"

The word "personal" is an adjective that has two different meanings: It may be used to describe a person's unique preferences or qualities, as in "My 'personal' favorite musician is Bruce Springsteen" or "My 'personal' ability to play baseball is not very impressive." It may also be used to refer to private experiences or items, as in "The police even went through his 'personal' correspondence" or "You have no business tampering with my 'personal' belongings."

In contemporary English, "personal" may also be used as a noun. For example, the "personals" refer to personal ads in newspapers and online venues, and the term "the personal" is occasionally used as slang for bathroom or toilet.

How to Use "Personnel"

"Personnel" is a noun referring to employees of a business or organization, as in "The 'personnel' at the XYZ company are very happy with their compensation packages."

"Personnel" is also used as an adjective in one specific circumstance: In the past, the "personnel office" or "personnel department" of a business was in charge of anything related to hiring, firing, training, or managing the company's employees. In more recent years, the term "human resources department" emerged to take its place.

The human resources department or HR manages everything that the personnel office once handled but may also be involved in helping employees navigate the challenges of the workplace, ranging from work-life balance to diversity training.

Examples

Quite a few sources warn against confusing "personal" with "personnel." Although these words come from the same root, they are spelled, pronounced, and used differently. In the following examples, both words are used appropriately:

  • "Employees' files are stored in the personnel department." The files that contain information about employees are stored in the department that manages employee information.
  • "Jane was asked to reveal personal information as part of the process of receiving top-secret clearance." A particular individual is asked to reveal private or secret information about herself to receive security clearance.
  • "ABC Corporation's personnel are required to hold bachelor's degrees." The people who work at ABC Corporation must be college graduates.
  • "My personal belief is that all people should follow a vegan diet." An individual holds particular views about food.

How to Remember the Difference

It may be unlikely that you'll mix up "personal" vs. "personnel," but these tips will help you if you're not quite sure of which to use:

  • "Personnel," which refers to multiple people, has more letters than "personal," which refers to just one person.
  • "Personnel" includes the letter "e," which is the first letter in the word "employee." "Personnel" almost always relates to the employees of a business or organization.

Related Grammatical Concepts

Some grammar experts believe that the word "personal" is redundant. For example, the meaning of the phrase "my personal opinion" is really identical in meaning to the phrase "my opinion." There are, however, exceptions to this rule; for example:

  • The terms "personal secretary" and "personal computer" suggest that the secretary or computer is dedicated to the needs of an individual. Thus, the phrase "personal secretary" means something different from "secretary."
  • The phrase "personal scent" refers to a customized perfume, intended only for a particular person. There are many perfumes, but only one personal scent for an individual.
  • The word "personal" can also suggest the concept of "private" or "secret." For example, "my personal diary" suggests a private diary (as opposed to an online calendar that might be shared with others in an organization).

Sources