People’s or Peoples’: Using Plural or Plural Possessive

The English language is difficult to learn — for both second language and native speakers. Choosing between two words that look almost identical but have subtly different meanings can sometimes feel like an impossible task.

Understanding the difference between people’s and peoples’ comes down to the context. Both words are plural, and both are in the possessive form. However, people’s is the possessive of the word people — the plural of person. In contrast, peoples’ is the possessive of the word peoples — used to refer to groups of people.

English grammar can be highly technical and confusing, but some simple rules will help you understand and remember when to use the correct word for your sentence.

Read on to find out everything you need to know about the difference between people’s and peoples’.

The Confusion of Plurals

You’re probably thinking, “Wait, I thought the word people was plural already, so why the extra  ‘s’? This can’t be right!”

Your confusion is understandable. Learning more about how plurals are formed in English — and the exceptions to the rules — may help.

Regular Plurals

The most common way to create plurals in English is to add “s” onto the end of the singular noun (source). These examples will help you remember what this looks like:

SingularPlural
catcats
horsehorses
roofroofs

When the singular ends with –s, –ss, –z, –ch or -x, we add -es onto the end.

SingularPlural
busbuses
bunchbunches
taxtaxes
waltzwaltzes 

Words that follow this predictable pattern are called regular plurals. Unfortunately, in English, many nouns do not follow this pattern.

Irregular Plurals

The many words that don’t follow the pattern described above are called irregular plurals, and this is where it can get complicated. 

Some irregular plurals also follow patterns (source). Here are some you might recognize:

SingularPluralPattern
knife, lifeknives, lives-fe at the end of the word becomes -ves
leaf, thiefleaves, thieves-f at the end of the word becomes -ves
potato, heropotatoes, heroes-o at the end of the word becomes -oes
baby, citybabies, cities-y at the end of the word becomes -ies
foot, goosefeet, geese-oo- in the middle of the word becomes -ee-
analysis, crisisanalyses, crises-is at the end of the word becomes -es

Some words that sound like they should be irregular are actually regular. For example, the plural of roof is not rooves but roofs. And, the plural of photo is not photoes but photos

In some cases, the plural of the word is identical to the singular. We talk about one sheep and many sheep, or one fish and many fish.

There is another group of plurals that are entirely different from their singular forms.

SingularPlural
man, womanMen, women
childchildren
personpeople
mousemice

Unfortunately, there is no universal rule to help you know which words fit into the different groups (source). The reality is that you have to learn the plural for each singular by heart.

Image by J.Kelly Brito via Unsplash

People Versus Peoples

As we’ve seen above, the word people is an irregular plural, which indicates the plural of the word person. We speak about one person but many people. Consider this example:

  1. The person who brings us food in a restaurant is called a server.
  1. The people who bring us food in a restaurant are called servers.

You can see that in the first sentence, there is only one server (singular), whereas, in sentence two, there are multiple servers (plural). You’ll also notice that the verb bring changes to brings, and is changes to are when we use the plural forms.  

Peoples of the World

People's or Peoples': Understanding the Differences Between the Two Terms
Image by Duy Pham via Unsplash

The word peoples is an even more irregular anomaly of the English language. Individuals use it to refer to indigenous or pre-colonial populations defined by culture, ethnicity, or language (source). For example:

Indigenous peoples have close connections to their ancestral lands and traditions.

As you can tell from the verb have in this sentence, the word peoples functions as a plural. So, technically, peoples is the plural of the word people, making it a type of plural on a plural. 

Don’t worry too much about the details. The key to getting it correct is understanding whether you are using the possessive of the word people or the word peoples — we’ll see how that works, next. 

The Possessive Apostrophe

In English, the possessive form is a way of showing ownership. There is a simple rule that governs how to show the possessive, and in most cases, it is through the possessive apostrophe (’). 

When a noun is singular, we show the possessive by adding an apostrophe “s” (‘s) onto the end of the noun (source). Consider these examples:

The bat belongs to the boy.  →  The boy’s bat.

The hat belongs to the person. →  The person’s hat.

Note that even when the singular noun ends in “s,” we still add both the apostrophe and another “s.” For example:

The wheels belong to the bus. →  The bus’s wheels.

The same rule applies to how we show the possessive for a proper noun, such as a person’s name. 

The television belongs to Warren. → Warren’s television.

As with most cases, rules have exceptions, and the important exception to this rule would be the possessive form of the word it. We write the plural form of it without an apostrophe as follows:

The box belongs to the toy. → Its box.

Many people make the mistake of writing the possessive form of its in the same way as the abbreviation it’s (which is the shortened version of it is). We also use apostrophes to show abbreviation or contraction, such as in the word don’t, a contraction of do not.

When Possessives Meet Plurals

Plural nouns usually end with an “s.” This applies to plurals from most of the groups we discussed above, including the most common plurals formed by adding “s” or “es” to the end of a word. But it also applies to the irregular pattern plurals we discussed above (source).

In the case of a plural noun that ends with “s,” you show the possessive by adding only an apostrophe (‘) to the end of the word. For example:

The bat belongs to the boys. →  The boys’ bat.

The wheels belong to these buses. →  These buses’ wheels.

The tools belong to the thieves. →  The thieves’ tools.

The toys belong to the babies. →  The babies’ toys.

The capes belong to the heroes. →  The heroes’ capes.

However, the rules differ when it comes to the very irregular plurals that are entirely different from their singular forms.

In this case, we add the apostrophe and the “s” to indicate possession, almost as if the noun were singular. This sounds very confusing, but these examples may make it easier to understand:

The cars belong to the women. → The women’s cars.

The shoes belong to the men. → The men’s shoes.

This bedroom belongs to the children. → The children’s bedroom.

To learn more about the difference between plurals and possessives and when to use each form, read “Families or Family’s: When to Use Possessive Form“. 

You can also keep a copy of both The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology as well as Dryers English, a style guide, handy as you learn. You can easily purchase both on Amazon.  

Ok, So What About People’s and Peoples’?

Now that you understand how the plural and possessive forms work, you can apply this logic to the difference between people’s and peoples’.

Remember that the word people is the plural of the word person. As we’ve already seen, when the word person is in the possessive form, we add an apostrophe “s” (‘s) to the end of the word as follows:

The dog belongs to this person. →  This person’s dog.

The word people belongs to the group of extra-irregular plurals that are completely different from their singular forms. This means when it becomes possessive, it gets the same treatment as its singular form. For example:

The houses belong to those people. →  Those people’s houses.

But, as we’ve discussed, the word peoples is a plural ending in “s,” which means that in the possessive form, it gets the same treatment as regular plurals, as follows:

The traditions belong to the indigenous peoples. →  The indigenous peoples’ traditions.

When you choose between the words people’s and peoples’, determine whether you intend to refer to a simple group of people or many groups of indigenous peoples.

To do this, it may be helpful to reverse the possessive form by asking yourself, “Who does this belong to?”

  1. The people’s house. 

Question: Who does the house belong to? 

Answer: The house belongs to the people.

  1. The peoples’ traditions.

Question: Who do the traditions belong to?

Answer: The traditions belong to the peoples.

You can see that example 1 refers to a group of people, while example 2 refers to many peoples.

If you’re feeling confused, remember that the word peoples has quite a specialized and unusual usage, which means you will not use it very often in ordinary writing and speech.

Instead, in most cases, you will probably use the possessive form, people’s

Final Thoughts

Navigating the complexities of English grammar can be like trying to find your way through a minefield. However, the rules are different when it comes to the very irregular plurals that are completely different from their singular forms. 

But becoming familiar with some of the general patterns that govern language forms like the plural and the possessive does help you to make educated guesses, and — with some practice — choosing the right form of the word.

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