English grammar: more people more problems

My friend and I were about to leave the office for the day. Not wanting to lock anybody in, but too lazy to walk up three floors to check for ourselves, my friend started writing a message on our office Slack channel, before looking up to ask me:

“Is there any more people upstairs?”
OR
“Are there any more people upstairs?”

Is.

There’s no ‘short’ vs ‘long’ answer like last time. But this sent us down an English grammar rabbit hole, and we ended up chatting a good half an hour before remembering we were ‘just’ about to leave the office and had shit to do.

How can ‘is’ and ‘are’ be so easily confused?

Think about it. Do you say:

“My family is from England” or “My family are from England”?
“My team is winning” or “My team are winning”? 
“The flock is running away” or “The flock are running away”?

Some of you might be sitting there wondering why the hell anyone would say “my team are winning”. Team is singular. One team, two teams. So “my team is winning”.

But some of you might be sitting there saying “my team are winning”…but not really knowing why.

Collective nouns

Words like ‘family’, ‘team’, or ‘flock’ are collective nouns. A collective noun groups multiple people, animals or things into one unit.

American English generally treats them as singular. But British English often treats them as plurals.

I’ve heard that it depends whether you’re talking about the group as a single unit or as a lot of individuals. So a British person would say ‘The orchestra often plays at the Art Centre’ but ‘The orchestra are turning their instruments’.

But to be honest, as a native British speaker, I would say ‘are’ at least nine times out of ten without any real justification other than my gut. Is my family driving me crazy, or are my family driving me crazy? I don’t stop to think about it. They just are.

What about people? Is that a collective noun?

Nope. It’s just plural. I would never say “Is there any more people upstairs?”.

People is the plural of person. If you imagined that we were a kennel, not a regular old office, you would ask: “Are there any more dogs upstairs?” (Not “Is there anymore dogs upstairs?”) It doesn’t have an ‘s’ like most English plurals, but ‘people’ is just the plural of ‘person’. One person, two people.

…Except if you’re writing in a legal (or some kind of quasi-legal) setting, in which case you can get away with saying the really ugly sounding word: ‘persons’. (Like the phrase ‘person or persons unknown’ which is, according to a quick google, a Twilight Zone episode title.)

…And also except if it’s ‘people’ in the singular sense. A people. Referring to all men, women and children in a particular tribe, nation, country or ethnic group as a singular unit.

“They are a great people”
“The English are an unusual people”

In this case, you can say that ‘they’ (plural) are part of the same group of ‘people’. It sounds more natural with a word you’re more used to, like “they are a team” or (sing it with me) “WE ARE FAMILY”.

You can also say ‘peoples’. Yup. As in, ‘The native peoples of Central and South America’ or “All the peoples of the world”. Apparently in this sense, ‘people’ is working as a ‘count noun’, which I hadn’t heard of before and itself opens up yet another can of worms…

Why is English so bloody complicated?

I’m not saying this to freak you out, or make you worry that you’re speaking English wrong. I’m saying this partly because the English language is complicated and weird, and I find that fascinating.

But mostly because The Hard and Fast Rules of Grammar™ are just an attempt to put some order back into something that evolved organically. Putting the complicated into simple groups with nice sounding names, like ‘collective noun’ or ‘count noun’. And with collective nouns, you can see that not only has language evolved, but it evolved differently in different places.

So what am I supposed to do with this information?

If you’re writing in a casual setting? Don’t worry too much about it, and follow your gut! How often are you going to write the phrase: “People think that of all the peoples of the world, the English are the most peculiar people”?

And if you’re writing professionally, follow your company’s brand guidelines if you have them, or otherwise just be consistent. But also, don’t let grammar get in the way of good writing.

For example, the names of companies and other organisations are generally regarded as singular — in both American and British English. But when I’m writing for Designit, I’m not just thinking of grammar. I’m thinking about who we are as a company. And at the core of our identity is our people.

So if anthropology books can say “they are a unique people”, then I can say “We are Designit, a strategic design company”.

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