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As I understand, when we say something about people from some country generally, we use the plural form. For example, "The Italians are people who have made their mark in many parts of the world." Here "the Italians" refers to Italian people in general.

Here are some of the results I found when I searched for "the italians are",

The Italians Are Losing Interest in Wine (title of an article)

The Italians are said to be the most passionate people in Europe.

However, I also found a small number of usage of "the Italian is",

Like the Chinese, the Italian is a born gambler.

"You want to know why the Italian is skinny?"

The first was from the book How the Other Half Lives. Considering that the book was dated back from 1890, and the joke, well, is a joke, is this usage of the singular form for stereotypical people still acceptable in modern English?

(As a side note, I know that I should write the British, the English, the French, and other handful countries without -s or -es, and I must use them as plural.)

  • I'm not very sure about that quote from the book. (I didn't read the whole page yet.) It will surely be correct if it refers to one Chinese person and one Italian person. – Damkerng T. Dec 3 '13 at 8:13
  • I agree with your edit. I would say that the plural is used to speak of a population in general, which can be used to communicate stereotypes but isn't always. It can also be used for objective statements, like "Americans consume more fruit, more bottled water and more yogurt than they did a decade ago" (source). On the other hand, I'm struggling to think of a use for the singular that doesn't communicate a stereotype... Hmm. – snailcar Dec 3 '13 at 11:44
  • Am I getting a clue? When we speak about individual's quality/character, we may treat the noun as singular? They still behaved okay with you but do you know how the Indian is treated here? OR Ah, that's quite rude, do you know how to speak with the American? In your case of The Italians are, the author might refer to the whole mass whereas The Italian is is describing a specific character of the Italian. Experts may convey this better. – Maulik V Dec 4 '13 at 4:06
  • @Maulik - I think you are close. After reading that book (the link I gave in a comment under SF.'s answer), it seems to me that we should only use these nationalities as a "definite singular generic" reference (according to the book), i.e. the + singular nationality only when we refer to a "representative member" of the group in contrast with those in other groups. Which might be the reason why the book noted that "The Italian is fond of children" sounds odd. (People from other countries are fond of children too!) – Damkerng T. Dec 4 '13 at 4:26
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    Re: your last parenthesis, you could say "The Briton is known for his dry wit," if you want to parallel your second set of examples. – The Photon Dec 4 '13 at 19:11
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Think of it as "A typical Italian" or "Your average Italian". It's the same general as "an individual". Just a different way of phrasing "The Italians".

  • A typical Italian, yes. But doesn't the Italian sound strange? – Damkerng T. Dec 3 '13 at 11:55
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    Think of animal documentaries. "The hippopotamus eats 65kg of plant matter every night" - they are not speaking about the one the camera is pointing at, but about "The hippopotamus" in general. Same about Italians. – SF. Dec 3 '13 at 12:06
  • I was once told that we can think of other species collectively as thus we can use either The hippopotamus (singular) or The hippopotamuses (plural), but we can't do that with people. And it stuck with me since. I'm not sure is that right, or we really can use the singular the Italian collectively? – Damkerng T. Dec 3 '13 at 12:14
  • I'm sorry but I never heard of the rule you speak about. You need a second opinion on that. – SF. Dec 3 '13 at 12:22
  • You might find this link, books.google.co.th/…, interesting. It seems to get along with the rule I was told quite well. – Damkerng T. Dec 3 '13 at 18:55

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