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As a British native English speaker I have only ever used the word "folk" as an adjective in phrases such as "folk music" or "folk tales". My unscientific impression is that its use as a synonym for people is increasing in the British media, which prompts the question: How can I decide whether it should be folk or folks?

  • We should do more for our old folk.

or

  • We should do more for our old folks.

..

  • Some folk never listen.

or

  • Some folks never listen.

Are the two words interchangeable, or are there some clear usage patterns?

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2 Answers

up vote 6 down vote accepted

Folk is an adjective (e.g. folk music, folk art).

Folk is a collective noun (e.g. the folk are uprising).

Folks is a collection of individual folk. The distinction being that "folk" refers to a mass or a mob -- It is referring to the collection or the mass itself. "Folks" is referring to the plurality of individuals that make up the mass.

In your examples, either old folk (the retired population in general) or old folks (some set of individuals) would be correct.

In the second example, I would go with "Some folks never listen" as it is the individual people who are not listening, not the crowd in general.

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Thanks. The distinction is subtle but makes sense. My impression, however, is that most (folk/folks) do not make this distinction when using the word. The search results for folk/folks on the Guardian website show no clear usage pattern that reflects this distinction. –  Shoe Dec 6 '11 at 6:21
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Merriam-Webster makes these distinctions for folk or folks (both of which it lists as plural forms of folk):

  • plural folk

the masses of people in a homogeneous social group as contrasted with the individual or with a selected class : the great proportion of the members of a people that determines the group character and that tends to preserve its characteristic form of civilization and its customs, arts and crafts, legends, traditions, and superstitions from generation to generation (e.g., the Folk of the Air, the Folk of the Fringe)

  • folk or folks plural

a certain kind or class of people -- used with a qualifying adjective or phrase (fine folks, parties for the young folks)

  • folks plural

people indefinitely (folks say the house is haunted)

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