People, singular and plural



?/strong>The English people are a great people.?nbsp; Here "the English people" is plural, and "are" is of course plural. 

"A great people" seems to me singular.  Why? I know the sentence is right, but I don't think the following sentence is also right: 揟hey are a student.?/p>

Is "Their people are a bad lot?the same structure as "The English people are a great people?

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The noun people has both a PLURAL sense and a SINGULAR sense.

In the PLURAL sense, people is used as the plural of person very frequently. It is a plural count noun and takes a plural verb. It never has an ending; it is already plural.


There were 15 people in the elevator.


The Portuguese people have chosen a new president. (Quirk)1


People were dancing in the streets. (American Heritage Dictionary)2

(Occasionally, 損ersons?is preferred to 損eople,?as in legal and quasi-legal language: 揂ll persons needing a permit must apply to the Administration Office by 6:00 p.m., October 16th.?

In sentence (a) above, you could also say: 揟here were 15 persons in the elevator,?if you are an elevator inspector or store administrator, for example. However, 損ersons?is not appropriate for Sentences (b) and (c).

Another example of the PLURAL sense—to mean the plural of 損erson?#151;is the first appearance of people in Left抯 example in the box above:


The English people are a great people. (Left)

In contrast, the SINGULAR sense of people is used to refer to ALL the men, women, and children of a particular tribe, nation, country or ethnic group, speaking of them as a UNIT, and so the phrase a great people is indeed singular. It is a singular count noun. You can say:


They are a great people. (Quirk)


The Japanese are an industrious people. (Quirk)


The English people are a great people. (The second occurrence of people in Left抯 sentence.)

In sentences (e), (f), and (g), 揟hey,?揟he Japanese,?and 揟he English? refer to all the individuals of a tribe or a nation or a country or an ethnic group. 揟hey,?揟he Japanese,?and 揟he English?#151;the plural subjects of the sentence—all take a plural verb.

The predicate nominative—a great people—is, in this case, singular: a great people who, all together, form that one country or one ethnic group or one people. Since it is a predicate nominative, you can use a singular noun to describe the unit. Besides using a people as the predicate nominative, you could also use other nouns such as 揳 group,?揳 team,?or 揳 class,? as in: 揟hey are a great team! They won the World Cup!?/p>

A people—meaning the unit of all the people in a tribe, nation, country or ethnic group—is a singular count noun. It has this form as a plural count noun: peoples. Thus, you can say:


The native peoples of Central and South America (Collins COBUILD English Dictionary)3


The English-speaking peoples (Quirk)


I have known it to happen among savage peoples. (Longman)4


All the peoples of the world desire peace. (Azar)5

So, the word people, meaning the unit of people formed by a national group, has a meaning different from people, meaning different individuals. People—the unit—is a singular count noun, as you can see from 揳 great people,?and a plural count noun, as you can see in sentences (h), (i), (j) and (k) directly above. A footnote in Azar adds this clarification: 揟he word ?strong>people?/strong> has a final only when it is used to refer to ethnic or national groups.?/p>

About your thoughts: You are right—揟hey are a student?is not a good sentence. It does not make sense to say 揟hey are a student? in the same way as 揟hey are a people.?揟hey are a people? means that 搕hey?#151;the individuals referred to—all come together to form a people, a nation, an ethnic group—it is an acceptable English sentence. It抯 hard to imagine what 搕hey? would refer to in the sentence 揟hey are a student.?

Your sentence, 揟heir people are a bad lot?(搇ot?functions here as a singular count noun, and means 揳 group? seems to be the same structure as 揟he English people are a great people.?/p>

1 Quirk et al: A Comprehensive Grammar of The English Language. Longman, 1985, p. 303.
2 The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. Third Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, 1992, p.1341.
3 Collins COBUILD English Dictionary. Harper Collins, 1995, p.1223.
4 Biber et al.: Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English. Longman, 1999, p. 290.
5 Azar: Understanding and Using English Grammar, 3rd. ed. (Pearson Education, 2002), p.92 (footnote).

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