I'm reading The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame and there's the following phrase: "They were a powerful people, and rich, and great builders."

However, I've googled a rule: Plural nouns can be used with the definite article or no article at all; to use an indefinite article would be incorrect.

Does it mean that "people" here is a singular noun? Is this because the phrase refers to people as a tribe/community?

  • Yes. A people has a meaning distinct from people on its own - it means a nation or ethnic group. Apr 5 at 7:31
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    Use a dictionary. People: people noun [ countable ] all the men, women, and children who live in a particular country, or who have the same culture or language" Cambridge Dictionary. Apr 5 at 7:32

You're right in thinking that it refers to ‘people as a tribe/community’. In this case, ‘a people’ means ‘the entire group of people (that usually has something in common e.g. language, culture, ethnicity etc)’.

I recently read the first chapter in The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language by David Crystal and came across the same usage of ‘a people’:

Before the Anglo-Saxon invasions (§2), the language (or languages) spoken by the native inhabitants of the British Isles belonged to the Celtic family, introduced by a people who had come to the islands around the middle of the first millennium ad [...]

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