I have been confused for so long about the plural and singular forms of "people". I want to put an end to this confusion.

What is the difference between these following expressions, and is it correct to use these expressions in both their singular and plural forms?

    • "The German people are not warlike"

    • "The German people is not warlike"

(As in "The German people is no warlike nation. It is a soldierly one, which means it does not want a war but does not fear it....")

    • "People are funny"

    • "People is funny"

Here I suppose that "people is" referring to a population/community: "the German people is not warlike" = "the German population is not warlike" and "People is funny" = "population is funny".

Is this correct? If it is correct, then what does "people are" mean?

  • 1
    People are always plural, but a population is a singular noun. – FumbleFingers Jul 28 '15 at 15:34
  • 1
    @FumbleFingers what about A Prosperous People? – phoog Jul 28 '15 at 16:07
  • @phoog: What about them? There are 26 written instances of are a prosperous people in Google Books, but the only instance of the singular verb form is is a prosperous, people-centred, compact city, which doesn't match OP's context. – FumbleFingers Jul 28 '15 at 16:34
  • @FumbleFingers that's the British/American "the company is/the company are" distinction, but the predicate of both fragments ("is a prosperous people" and "are a prosperous people") is the singular "a prosperous people." – phoog Jul 28 '15 at 17:45
  • Consider: "They are a very family-oriented people", "Similar customs are found among many peoples of the world" -- H&P CGEL, page 345. I think this question on "people(s)" has come up before. – F.E. Jul 28 '15 at 18:48

The word people is predominantly plural (see Merriam-Webster's top definitions), although it can be singular.

According to this source (a Pearson Education Q&A),

In the PLURAL sense, people is used as the plural of person very frequently. It is a plural count noun and takes a plural verb. It never has an -s ending; it is already plural.

Most of the time, people will be plural; and as far as I can tell, you will never see the phrase people is--at least, not in a grammatically correct sentence.

Here is what that same source has to say of the singular people:

the SINGULAR sense of people is used to refer to ALL the men, women, and children of a particular tribe, nation, country or ethnic group, speaking of them as a UNIT, and so the phrase a great people is indeed singular. It is a singular count noun.

(Okay, people is appears as a phrase in that quotation, but is refers to phrase and not people.)

People, even when singular, should always take are.

For more on whether to use is or are, please visit the Online Writing Lab.

  • Per my comment to the OP, I don't think you can really claim a great people is "singular", since when used as a grammatical subject, it's invariably referenced using a plural noun form. – FumbleFingers Jul 28 '15 at 16:37
  • 5
    Regarding the singular sense, I cannot agree about 'people...should always take are'. One might say The Russians are a musical people, but that's because the subject is Russians - plural. What if you said A brave people is not cowed by the threats of a tyrant. – WS2 Jul 28 '15 at 16:42
  • 2
    @FumbleFingers Really? Should it be A brave people are not cowed...? – WS2 Jul 28 '15 at 16:43
  • @FumbleFingers I'm not sure I agree. All those examples in your link are things like we are a great people..., in which the subject is not "people". I'm still searching for an example with a people as the subject of a verb. – WS2 Jul 28 '15 at 16:49
  • @FumbleFingers The seventh definition of people from Merriam-Webster, given as a singular noun, is "the body of enfranchised citizens of a state"; the example given is "a people who migrated across the Bering Strait," in which people is interchangeable with group. Group, like people, is a collective noun -- which, according to Dictionary.com, "names a group of individuals or things with a singular form." That said, I did not claim a great people to be singular; my source did. – Jake Regier Jul 28 '15 at 17:08

"PEOPLE" is a collective noun/group noun singular in form but is used as plural.

  1. PEOPLE/(s)" can be both singular and plural if refers to the body of enfranchised or qualified citizens; nation ,class, ethnic group, persons under common ruler, kith and kin etc.

  2. However, COD defines 'a warlike people' as singular.(usually no plural) when the meaning is nation / a community.

3.People referring to persons in general is singular in form and takes plural verb.i.e, always plural.

To sum up, people is generally plural and takes a plural verb.


These are semantics, but semantics are exactly the subject here, so I will give it a shot.

Many dictionaries consider collective nouns singular, however this is more a common use definition. In truth, think of collectives as singular plurals. They are handled and spelled as a singular, but remain plural. "People are" remains the correct form in usage. It is referring to a single collection of people.

Some grammar guides and dictionaries state that pluralizing such collectives is incorrect. This is again via what is becoming common usage, it is not from grammar rules, though in time common usage rules do become grammar rules. Though it is often omitted is common practice, is certainly remains correct to pluralize a collective. Just because it is becoming steadily more common to see constructs such as "The people of Europe..." does not invalidate the form "The peoples of Europe..." The first form refers to all of the people of Europe as a single collective. The second for refers to multiple collections of people in Europe as a collection of groups, read it similar to "The many peoples of Europe..."

protected by tchrist Jul 15 '16 at 23:15

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