The words “people” and “person” seem like a straightforward grammar lesson: one’s singular, the other’s plural. Yet, the English language wouldn’t be quite as entertaining if it didn’t have a few curveballs up its sleeve. Let’s delve into the nuances of these words and when “people” unexpectedly steps into the shoes of a singular noun.

The Usual Suspects

Most of the time, the distinction is clear-cut:

  • Person: Refers to a single individual.
    • Example: “There was only one person ahead of me in the queue.”
  • People: The plural form, indicating multiple individuals.
    • Example: “Crowds of people gathered for the festival.”

The Plot Twist: “People” as a Singular Noun

Here’s where things get interesting. “People” can also take on the role of a singular noun when referring to an entire ethnic group, nation, or community. In these cases, it emphasizes the collective identity.

Examples:

  • “The Inuit people have a deep connection to the Arctic environment.”
  • “The Japanese people are known for their politeness and respect.”
  • “The struggle for recognition of Indigenous peoples is a global issue.”

The Verb Conundrum

An extra layer of quirkiness arises when we consider verb agreement. Even though we’re using “people” in a singular sense here, we often still pair it with plural verbs:

  • “The Mayan people were skilled astronomers.” (not “was”)

Why the Shift?

This usage reflects a shift in focus. When we say “people” as a plural, we emphasize the individuals within the group. The singular “people” highlights the group as a unified whole, even while acknowledging that it’s composed of many individuals.

Everyday Use vs. The Special Case

Let’s be clear: 99% of the time, you’ll be using “people” as the standard plural of “person.” This singular usage is a special case, mainly found in historical, cultural, or formal discussions.

Key Takeaway

The next time you encounter the word “people,” take a moment to consider the context. Is it referring to a group of individuals, or is it highlighting a collective identity? Understanding this nuance will elevate your writing and your understanding of the fascinating flexibility of the English language.

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<a href="https://englishpluspodcast.com/author/dannyballanowner/" target="_self">Danny Ballan</a>

Danny Ballan

Author

Danny is a podcaster, teacher, and writer. He worked in educational technology for over a decade. He creates daily podcasts, online courses, educational videos, educational games, and he also writes poetry, novels and music.

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