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I saw these sentences on the Internet:

  1. There are three people here.

  2. A few people didn't enjoy the play.

Now I'm not sure whether people and other collective nouns like team, family and police are countable nouns or uncountable nouns. Is there an explanation for how these words work?

  • I answered the people question. I didn't answer the other questions because I don't think it's easy to generalize. They feel like separate questions to me. – snailcar Oct 1 '13 at 9:08
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People is usually the plural form of person:

One person, two people, three people, ...

What you'll notice here is:

  • People is countable.
  • People is plural, even though there's no -s suffix.
  • The singular form is always one person, never *one people.
  • The indefinite forms include a person and people.

Here are a few more details you can safely ignore:

This is called suppletion, and it's much like how we say went as the past form of go, even though went was originally a different word (the past form of wend).

The plural persons exists too, but it's limited to a few formal legal contexts. In everyday life, people use people as the plural form and ignore the word persons entirely.


And now, here are some details you shouldn't ignore:

People isn't just used as the plural of person. It's also used as a separate word meaning "the persons living in a country and sharing the same nationality" (Collins). And when it's used in this sense, both the singular and plural forms look different:

One people, two peoples, three peoples, ...

Although these are grammatical, we're not terribly likely to count peoples this way. This term is more likely to be used in phrases like the French people, the Navajo people, or the Native American peoples (note the plural, as there is more than one group of Native Americans).

You can tell the difference by how the word looks. If it's two people, it's the plural of person. If it's two peoples, it's referring to two groups of people, each of which has a distinct identity. And if it's one people, it must be referring to a group.

But most of the time, people is the plural of person.

4

People can be tricky because it has two related but distinct meanings, but in both it is countable.

  1. People is the plural of person, and can technically be replaced with persons, but this is usually reserved for laws and other legal writing. This is usually the sense that is meant, and it should be treated like any other plural (you can add quantifiers such as a few people or three people).
  2. People can be a collective noun meaning a group of persons, such as the English people. The plural of this word is peoples, and means multiple groups, such as the European peoples. Using peoples draws attention to the fact that the groups have differences that distinguish them, such as between the English, French, and German peoples.
2

A collective noun is singular, if the entities forming the group are acting in unison.

A collective noun is plural, if the entities forming the group are not acting in unison, rather acting individually.

(Source: chompchomp.com)

Countable Noun- Entities which we can count.

Uncountable Noun- Entities which we can't count.

Take "team" for example which consists of a number of players.

Every afternoon the baseball team follows its coach out to the hot field for practice.

Team = singular; follows = a singular verb; its = a singular pronoun. All members of the team arrive at the same place at the same time.

After the three-hour practice under the brutal sun, the team shower, change into their street clothes, and head to their air-conditioned homes.

Team = plural; shower, change, head = plural verbs; their = a plural pronoun. The teammates are dressing into their individual outfits and leaving in different directions for their individual homes.

Similarly, a jury of judges.

When they agree, we say:

The jury agrees on the verdict.

But when they diagree, we say:

The jury do not agree on the verdict.

As for people, I guess the other answers have already clarified the issue. So I am not addressing it.

Also collective nouns are usually singular. They have separate plural forms.

Collective nouns are names of collections or groups that can be considered as individual units. Army, family, flock, committee, and herd are all examples of collective nouns. Collective nouns are usually countable nouns (e.g. two armies, three families, six flocks, etc.) but are often confused with mass (or uncountable) nouns. The confusion generally stems from misuse of the term mass noun to mean collective noun.

UPDATE- This is relevant to mention that later Snailboat pointed out that this rule which I have given in the answer is a more UK usage than the US. Americans are most likely to consider any collective noun as singular in most of the case.

From wiki:

Due to an innovation in British English (BrE), collective nouns can take either singular (formal agreement) or plural (notional agreement) verb forms, according to whether the emphasis is on the body as a whole or on the individual members respectively; compare a committee was appointed with the committee were unable to agree.[12][13] The term the Government always takes a plural verb in British civil service convention, perhaps to emphasize the principle of cabinet collective responsibility.[14] Compare also the following lines of Elvis Costello's song "Oliver's Army": Oliver's Army are on their way / Oliver's Army is here to stay. Some of these nouns, for example staff,[15] actually combine with plural verbs most of the time.

In American English (AmE), collective nouns are almost always singular in construction: the committee was unable to agree. However, when a speaker wishes to emphasize that the individuals are acting separately, a plural pronoun may be employed with a singular or plural verb: the team takes their seats, rather than the team takes its seats. However, such a sentence would most likely be recast as the team members take their seats.[16] Despite exceptions such as usage in The New York Times, the names of sports teams are usually treated as plurals even if the form of the name is singular.[17]

The difference occurs for all nouns of multitude, both general terms such as team and company and proper nouns (for example where a place name is used to refer to a sports team). For instance,

BrE: The Clash are a well-known band; AmE: The Clash is a well-known band. BrE: Spain are the champions; AmE: Spain is the champion.

  • None of the plural examples sound natural to me as a US speaker, so to me, this answer is saying something false. The distribution of singular vs plural here is related to notional agreement, where a noun is construed as taking plural agreement because of its meaning, even though it's in a form that would normally take singular agreement. Notional agreement is significantly more common in BrE but still not universal; and it does appear in AmE, but not terribly often. (And if I recall correctly, it's more common with some words than others.) – snailcar Oct 1 '13 at 9:31
  • @snailboat, Well if I understood you correctly, you are admitting that the answer is not wrong outright, rather it is relevant however not in practical life. – Mistu4u Oct 1 '13 at 9:36
  • For more information on this AmE-BrE split, see Wikipedia. – snailcar Oct 1 '13 at 9:38
  • @snailboat, I see, so it must be mentioned IMO what happens in BrE and what happens in AmE. – Mistu4u Oct 1 '13 at 9:43
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    I would be much more likely to refer to the non-unison group in terms of its members, such as "... the team members shower, change, and go home" or "the members of the jury have not reached a verdict". – Hellion Oct 1 '13 at 18:49

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