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Which grammar is correct to ask?

Which people was Utah named for?

Or is it this...

Which peoples was Utah named for?

The answer being "Utes", is it correct to use "people" or "peoples" here in this example?

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Both versions are possible, depending on the intent of the question.


From the Merriam-Webster definition of people, we see peoples:

5 plural peoples : a body of persons that are united by a common culture, tradition, or sense of kinship, that typically have common language, institutions, and beliefs, and that often constitute a politically organized group


So:

  1. Which people was Utah named for?

    This would normally be referring to specific persons (sense 2 in the definition: "HUMAN BEINGS, PERSONS —often used in compounds instead of persons"). So, the answer would be individual proper names. For example, if the question had been which people Washington, D.C. was named for, the answer would be just one person: George Washington.

  2. Which peoples was Utah named for?

    This uses sense 5, as quoted above. The answer would be a groups of people united by a culture or tradition.

Since the answer is Utes, the more correct question in this case, especially if you were expecting the answer to be a cultural group, is the one that uses peoples.

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  • Were the Utes one people or several? – Lawrence Jul 8 '20 at 4:25
  • @Lawrence As the definition says, peoples means "a body of persons that are united…" Sense 5 has no version of the word that's spelled people. So even though it might sound odd, it's the spelling to use. The Utes are several persons. If using an attribute noun, they would be the Utes peoples. – Jason Bassford Jul 8 '20 at 4:29
  • I should have been clearer in my earlier comment. There were apparently “twelve historic bands of Utes”. It’s not the collection of persons I was asking about, but the collection of subgroups forming one (or more?) Ute people-group(s). – Lawrence Jul 8 '20 at 4:36
  • @Lawrence Oh, I see! Yes. Unfortunately, the syntax makes it ambiguous. It could be interpreted to mean a single Utes band, two or more bands, or all bands in general. It would likely not be distinguishing between bands, but the wording could still be the same if it was. But if that was already known, the question would most likely be Which Utes bands was Utah named for? instead. – Jason Bassford Jul 8 '20 at 4:42

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