Most English nouns are clearly singular or plural, but “people” is a bit of an anomaly and can cause much confusion. Because of the varying contexts in which we use it, it would not be surprising for you to wonder if “people” is singular or plural.
“People” is the plural for “person,” in most cases as it is frequently used to describe more than one person. However, it originally meant “a body of citizens,” and we may still refer to “a people” in the singular when speaking about a specific nation of people in this context.
This article will explore the origin of the word “people” and how we use it in both plural and singular contexts. We’ll also consider what verbs to use with “people,” especially when we use quantifiers such as “some people” or “many people.”
The word “people” dates back to the 1300s. It originates from Anglo-French, where they spelled it “peple” to refer to mankind in general. Its roots lie in the Latin populus, which means a body of citizens (source).
Today, we almost always use it to describe a group of human beings or human beings in general. There are some nuances in meaning, however, that are evident in the examples below.
|Referring to numerous human beings||Many people have brown eyes.|
|Referring to human beings in general||What will people think of you?|
|Referring to those involved in a specific occupation||He’s going to get the carpet people in to remove the stain.|
|Referring to everyone in society||The prime minister enjoys the support of the people.|
|Referring to relatives||Jack’s people come from Canada.|
People: Singular and Plural
We almost always use “people” in the plural context, as in all the examples above, but there are rare examples where we might use “a people” to refer to the citizens of a particular place or an ethnic group seen as a unit. In this context only, we can use “people” in the singular. Consider the examples below.
- The French are a people who enjoy wine and coffee.
- Australians are a sports-loving people.
- As a people, the Chinese are renowned for martial arts.
Other than in this specific context, “people” always refers to more than one human being. The singular form of “people” is usually “person,” which is a count noun. A count noun is, by definition, one that we can count.
Generally, any nouns that have a plural form are count nouns. Non-count nouns or mass nouns include things like “rice” or “sugar” as well as abstract nouns, such as “love,” that no one can count.
Most English count nouns simply take an “s” at the end to form a plural, but there are a few other rules to learn regarding plurals. The table below illustrates the broad rules around plurals.
|Regular count nouns||Add -s||Duck → ducks|
Rat → rats
Shoe → shoes
Girl → girls
Dot → dots
|Words that end in -s, -ss, -sh, -ch, x, or o||Add -es||Bus → buses|
Lass → lasses
Wish → wishes
Ranch → ranches
Box → boxes
Potato → potatoes
|Words that end in consonant plus -y||Replace -y with -ies||Puppy → puppies|
Lady → ladies
Baby → babies
Spy → spies
|Words that end in -f or -fe||Replace -f/fe with -ves||Half → halves|
loaf → loaves
Wife → wives
Then there are some exceptions that don’t follow any pattern, and you’ll just have to learn them (source). Some of the most common are in the list below. Additionally, there are irregular plurals, such as “people,” that you will have to master.
- Mouse → mice
- Photo → photos
- Man → men
- Woman → women
- Foot → feet
- Child → children
- Person → people
Is “Persons” Correct as a Plural?
“Persons” is also a plural form for “person,” but we don’t use it very often. The only time you’ll be likely to see the word “persons” is in a very formal or legal context, as we show in the examples below.
- Officers found two persons interfering with evidence at the crime scene.
- They arrested three persons for arson.
- The elevator capacity is 10 persons.
What About Peoples?
“Peoples” is another word that we only use very rarely in specific circumstances. This is when we need to differentiate between separate ethnic groups. Consider the examples below.
- The American and Canadian peoples have a competitive relationship.
- I studied the history of the native peoples of Southeast Asia.
- This is true of all Spanish-speaking peoples.
You could substitute “people” for “peoples,” and the sentences would still make sense in all these examples. However, they wouldn’t mean quite the same thing because they wouldn’t be specific in referring to defined ethnic groups.
If I speak about “all Spanish-speaking people,” then I’m just referring to everyone in the world who speaks Spanish. However, if I refer to “all Spanish-speaking peoples,” then I’m referring to defined cultures that speak Spanish.
Again, if I refer to the “native people of Southeast Asia,” I’m broadly referring to everyone who originates from the area. However, “native peoples of Southeast Asia” refers specifically to the original ethnic groups that make up the area’s populations.
Because the various contexts of “people” may be confusing, it’s sometimes clearer to use other words that minimize any confusion. For example, when referring to the people of a specific nation, it can be useful to use words such as “civilization,” “tribe,” or “population,” as we demonstrate in the sentences below.
- The American and Canadian populations have a competitive relationship.
- I studied the history of the native tribes of Southeast Asia.
- This is true of all Spanish-speaking civilizations.
People Is or People Are
In English, the subject and verb in a sentence must agree in number. All this means that if your subject is singular, then the verb must be as well. Similarly, if the subject is plural, then the verb must be plural. Grammarians refer to this concept as subject-verb agreement (source).
If we are using the verb “to be,” you may wonder whether to say “people is” vs. “people are.” Because “people” is plural when we are referring to a group of individuals, it takes plural verbs, as you can see in the examples below.
- People are often surprised to hear that he is an opera singer.
- People are afraid to enter that dark cave.
- I’m worried people are going to think badly of me.
We would use “is” with the singular “person” and “are” with the plural “people,” as in the examples below.
- Only one person is needed to complete the team.
- Two people are needed to complete the team.
American vs. British English
In British English, one rare case where you might see someone use “people” as a singular noun describing a singular unit of citizens and using “is” would be as follows.
- Of all European populations, the Swiss people is the most bilingual.
- The German people is synonymous with beer drinking.
- In mathematics, the Japanese people is the master.
But most American English grammarians recommend that we use “are” even when we use “people” in the singular sense (source).
It also follows that when we are using “peoples” as the plural of units of citizens, we would then use “are” as these sentences illustrate.
- The Swiss and German peoples are generally financially savvy.
- Many French-speaking peoples have differing accents.
- Asian peoples have endured severe weather patterns.
With so many contexts and variations, “people” is a word that you can always learn more about. To delve into another facet of this fascinating topic, click here to read “There Is People or There Are People?”
What About Other Tenses?
In discussing “people is” or “people are,” we are using the verb “to be” in the present tense. The same principles would apply in other tenses. The verb “to be” is irregular, and we’ve outlined its simple tenses below.
|I am||I will be||I was|
|You are||You will be||You were|
|He/she/it is||He/she/it will be||He/she/it was|
|We/they are||We/they will be||We/they were|
As “people” is almost always plural, it will mostly take the form of we/they. Therefore, we would express the various tenses as follows.
- People are waiting at the airport.
- People will be waiting at the airport.
- People were waiting at the airport.
On rare occasions in British English, when we refer to people in the singular, it will take the verb forms of he/she/it.
Using Qualifiers With “People”
We use quantifiers when we want to give more information about something and specifically to show how much or how many we have of something (source). There are many quantifiers in English, with some of the most common below.
We can only use some qualifiers with count nouns, and some only apply to non-count nouns. Others, such as those above, can function with both count and non-count nouns.
As we discussed earlier, “people” is a count noun. As such, the following are examples of qualifiers that we can use.
We place quantifiers at the beginning of any noun phrase. Therefore, when using a quantifier to describe “people,” it will come before the noun and before any other adjective. Consider the following examples that demonstrate this point.
- All people have two legs.
- I don’t have enough people to make a team.
- Few people have visited Antarctica.
- She asked both guilty people to stay behind.
- I’ve interviewed several Australian people.
What Happens to Verbs with Quantifiers?
You may wonder whether the use of quantifiers will affect the verb form that you use. For example, would we say, “some people is” or “are” or “many people is” or “are?”
The good news is that quantifiers don’t change anything. You still use the same verb that you would use if it wasn’t there. In the case of “people,” this would mean that it is a plural noun and therefore requires a plural verb. You would therefore say:
- Some people are concerned about the examination dates.
- Many people are coming to the conference.
We wouldn’t use quantifiers with “people” in its rare singular use because it is a defined group that we cannot quantify. We, therefore, cannot ever say “some people is” or “many people is.”
Other Words That Function as a Singular and Plural Noun
It’s unusual to come across a word that functions as both a singular and plural noun. What we’ve learned is that it’s important to understand what context someone uses it in. Are there other words that also have singular and plural uses depending on context?
There are several group nouns that we can use either in the singular or plural depending on our meaning. For example, “team,” “army,” “choir,” “club,” “public,” etc. All of these describe groups of people, and we can use them with either singular or plural verbs. Consider the examples below.
- The team is/are at the top of the league.
- The army is/are marching down the street.
- The choir is/are singing at my friend’s wedding.
Interestingly, American English generally treats collective nouns as singular, while British English is more likely to treat them as plural (source). Of course, both options are technically right in their proper dialect, but it’s best to follow the dominant usage of the English environment you are in.
This article is written for strategiesforparents.com.
In all of these examples, you would use the singular verb “is” if you think of the team/choir/army as a singular group. However, in British English, if you’re referring to the individual members, you would use the plural verb “are.”
At first glance, it seemed obvious that “people” is a plural word, but it’s interesting to note that, although this is almost always the case, there are some rare examples where it can be singular.
It’s useful to understand how plurals work in English so that we know the difference between “person,” “persons,” “people,” and “peoples” and which verb form to use with each.
Still, most of the time, “people” is the plural of “person,” and it takes a plural verb in British English and always in American English. So if you can remember that, you will almost always be correct and, hopefully, you’ll speak English better than most people!