When do you use the before plural demonymic expressions like "Americans", "British people" or "Chinese people"?

Chinese people celebrate Lunar New Year on the first days of the first lunar month.

The Chinese have been maintaining a form of state-sanctioned capitalism.

The Chinese people shall maintain our cultural identity against western encroachment.

Americans often love to espouse freedom.

The Americans had no choice but to interfere in the War.

These people have actively pushed for policies that are against the expressed wishes of the American people.

To me, it seems to work like this

  • Without the: when you're talking about other peoples and their foreign cultures
  • With the: when you're contrasting one people with another ("the Americans did this while the Germans did that")
  • With the and people: when you're talking about your own people

Note: Please refrain from irrelevant discussion on parts of speech. This question is not at all about whether Chinese in the Chinese is strictly an adjective, or a collective noun. What this question concerns is semantic differences that could arise due to the presence or absence of the article the. Again, it is not about the adjective-vs-noun debate (note how Americans is undoubtedly not an adjective), unless that debate is not wholly grammatical, but indeed productively helps explain the semantics.

  • Are you conflating nouns and adjectives?
    – tchrist
    Mar 24 at 3:35
  • @tchrist Is that relevant? I think I'm done with frustrating debates about whether "British" should only be an adjective or also a noun in the phrase "the British", in a different question I posted a while ago. Mar 24 at 3:39
  • 1
    Then you need to rephrase your question without these confusing versions inviting repeat troubles like you had before. Just use Americans and Germans and Spaniards and such — words with regular noun plurals — so that we don't have to deal with these morphologically defective -ese and -ish adjectives lacking corresponding regular plural noun inflections. That way we'll finally all know exactly what is what. Otherwise it's being deliberately confusing and that leads nowhere good, except maybe for cheese danishes. :)
    – tchrist
    Mar 24 at 4:15
  • 2
    Please simply replace all instances of Chinese above with German or Germans as the occasion requires. That will clarify the matter and remove any doubt as to whether you are being deliberately obtuse and confusing. Otherwise you really are intentionally talking about the selfsame confusing thing as before no matter your protests to the contrary.
    – tchrist
    Mar 24 at 4:39

4 Answers 4


First, I must point out that words like Chinese, Japanese, Lebanese, etc. are different from words like Americans, Koreans, etc. in that, when used as "demonyms," the former are much more likely to combine with the than the latter. (Note also that words like French, British, etc. must combine with "the" to be demonyms.)

To avoid this problem, I'll mainly discuss American(s). When you use Americans (plural), the only option is whether to add the or not. In everyday conversations, I don't think you'd need the unless you're referring to specific members of Americans, which doesn't seem to be your concern. But if you want to collectively refer to the group of people in a formal context (i.e., the whole members of Americans), adding the would do the trick.

Theoretically, you can use American people instead of Americans in everyday conversations (without the), but using two words would be unnecessarily complex, so it's not recommended. In a formal context, though, people (especially politicians) tend to prefer the American people to the Americans simply because the former sounds more cordial.

  • 1
    You mention here two possible semantic connotations: it does seem to me the Americans often occurs in formal contexts, like, say, a presidential/ministerial speech or a history book; and I think I've only ever heard the American people in the political sense of "ordinary Americans" or "American civilians", as opposed to the elite or politicians. Mar 24 at 5:17
  • 2
    I don't think the American people excludes the elite or politicians, since the elite and politicians also are voters.
    – JK2
    Mar 24 at 5:22
  • @Vun-HughVaw - 'The American people' is like the Borg except wholesome. Mar 24 at 5:44
  • @HippoSawrUs I don't get that reference. Is that a Star Trek thing? (from what I've just Googled) Mar 24 at 5:46
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    Phrases like "the Chinese" can be considered mildly offensive in AmE; compare "the Blacks."
    – alphabet
    Mar 24 at 13:49

"The" is a definite article and therefore designates exclusivity when speaking about a noun. One uses "the" when making definite versus indefinite reference.

Get in the car (Used to refer to a specific vehicle)

Get in a car (Used to refer to unspecified or class of objects)

So the only difference is how exclusive you want to be. To say "Americans love to espouse freedom" means that there is no implied exclusivity, as you've identified in bullet point 2 on contrasting. For usage of "people" this rule carries over the same way.

"Chinese people" - used for generalization. "The Chinese people" - used specifically, as compared with other nationalities.

Often, one also uses a phrase like "The Chinese people" instead of "The Chinese" to specify that you are referring to the masses of a particular country as opposed to its government or institutions.

  • 1
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    – Community Bot
    Mar 24 at 4:38

The word "people" has two different meanings:

  1. It can be used as the plural of "person." This is how it is used in the phrase "Chinese people." Being a plural, it does not need a determiner like "the."

  2. It can be a singular noun, defined by MW as "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." This is the sense used in the phrase "the Chinese people." Being a singular count noun, it requires a determiner like "the."

As an example of the semantic differences, consider these two sentences:

  1. Chinese people often live to age 85.

  2. *The Chinese people often lives to age 85.

Sentence (1) is fine, but (2) is complete nonsense. "Chinese people" is required here.

By contrast, compare:

  1. The Chinese people is indestructible.

  2. *Chinese people are indestructible.

The second claim is false and rather nonsensical. In this case, "the Chinese people" is required.

  • The singular noun people may indeed mean "a body of persons that are united by a common culture, tradition, or sense of kinship", but I doubt the fact of singularity in itself satisfactorily explains "unification by a common culture, tradition, or sense of kinship". I don't see why you can't talk about a culturally unified people with the plural phrase "Chinese people" Mar 24 at 3:50
  • 1
    @Vun-HughVaw Sometimes singular NPs agree with plural verbs; compare "A group of people were waiting outside." Clearly "a group of people" is singular (given the "a"), but the verb form "were" is plural.
    – alphabet
    Mar 24 at 10:29
  • 3
    As a native AmEnglish speaker, "The Chinese people is" feels very wrong to me. It should be "The Chinese people are". However "The Chinese population is" feels more correct. Your point about requiring "The" for the statement to make sense still stands though.
    – David K
    Mar 24 at 14:49
  • 1
    Also, there’s nothing incorrect about Chinese people are indestructible. Mar 25 at 3:10
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    @JK2 — Yes, I challenge alphabet to defend *The Chinese people is indestructible and *The people has spoken with examples from the corpus. Possibly A Chinese people is an indestructible people or A people has spoken. But even then.... Mar 25 at 17:02

"The" implies unity or coordination of the group in question.

"Americans did XYZ in 1952" is a generalization that may (at least in the opinion of the speaker) have tended to be true of Americans in 1952, but it does not imply that the people in question were in any way unified or coordinated in this behavior. For example, "Americans ate a lot of red meat in 1952" may have been true, on average, relative to some other countries, in that year, but consumers had not sat down together in 1951 and agreed that eating red meat was a policy, or one of the coming year's top priorities. (Never mind the fact that some special-interest groups probably did do exactly this---the consumers themselves did not.)

By contrast: "The Americans did XYZ in 1952" would be used in contexts where we have some particular group of Americans in mind. It might be any group, such as the US Olympic water-polo team from that year - if so, it would be clear from the preceding context that Olympic water-polo teams were the subject of discussion. Without such context, you would assume it means the US Government, and that that is being used as a synecdoche for the nation as a whole. This is because the usage implies a deliberately coordinated effort, and the government is the entity that most often coordinates deliberate efforts on the nation's behalf.

If you said, "Americans fought in the Battle of Triangle Hill in 1952", that would seem to imply that the battle may have occurred between other parties and that some Americans were caught up in it (you could insert the word "some" at the beginning). By contrast "The Americans fought in the Battle of Triangle Hill in 1952" implies correctly that this involvement was a deliberate action, taken as a group.

"The American people did XYZ in 1952" is even stronger. While the "the" implies unity or coordination, the "people" tells us that it's not a synecdoche any more. We're not just talking about the government representing the people, we're talking about the actual people, and it's a struggle to remember when that entity did anything with sufficient unity to justify the construction. "The American people anxiously awaited the results of the Olympic water-polo final in 1952" is a stretch. Perhaps "The American people were horrified by the events of September 11th 2001" would do it.

  • There's a kernel of truth in your interpretation of "the Americans". Oftentimes when "the Americans" is mentioned, what it actually means is "the American government" or "the American military", not the entire US as a whole. I can see "the Americans" occurs more often in contexts where there's contrast or interaction between different nations or ethnicities, where only representative groups of those particular nations or ethnicities are directly involved in such interaction. Two opposing armies, four opposing sport teams, three adversarial governments, etc. Mar 25 at 3:29

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