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I have this sentence:

People smoking cigarettes is unhealthy.

What kind of word group is "people smoking cigarettes"? I understand that "smoking cigarettes" can be a gerund phrase and it can act as a singular subject; hence, we use "is," for it, a singular noun.

For example, "Smoking cigarettes is unhealthy."

But what purpose has "people" here? Is it the actual subject instead of "smoking cigarettes"? If people is the subject then using "is" will be incorrect as people is a plural subject.

"People smoking cigarettes is unhealthy" sounds correct to me, but I just don't understand clearly what function do "people" and "smoking cigarettes" have got here. Please help. I'm really confused.

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  • Will you please give us more context? Where did you see this? Jun 11, 2023 at 22:06

2 Answers 2

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This is a conversational construction, and there are a whole range of statements that take this form:

  • People smoking cigarettes is unhealthy
  • Cars speeding is dangerous
  • Voters distrusting election results is dangerous for democracy

I think the best analysis is that there is an implicit subject of "A situation with..." or "A society with...", and this is the purpose of the plural noun, taking it from a statement about an indivual action to one about a broader problem. For example someone might use the "cars speeding" statement in a discussion about a road outside a school, with the implication being not that individual drivers need to slow down, but that some traffic calming measures need to be installed.

While you might encounter such statements on social media or in news discussions, I would avoid it in your own writing or other formal contexts.

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    I get it now. We have an implicit subject that is singular. So it is like "[The habit of] People smoking cigarettes is unhealthy." Habit is a singular noun and agrees with the verb "is." Thank you for the answer.
    – JeSuisJen
    Jun 12, 2023 at 9:22
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On it's own, without punctuation, this just sounds like bad English. You could be addressing a group and say

People! [to gain their attention] Smoking cigarettes is unhealthy.

Or

People smoking cigarettes are unhealthy

  • a general statement of opinion about smokers.
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    I strongly disagree. The original sentence is perfectly clear, and there's nothing "bad" about it. Its meaning is completely different from your emendation.
    – Colin Fine
    Jun 11, 2023 at 22:33
  • @ColinFine OK Colin, if you post an answer that puts a plausible interpretation of the original sentence then I will happily delete my answer. But as it stands I just don't see it. Jun 12, 2023 at 0:49
  • I think it's bad English too, unless the intent is that having people around smoking cigarettes is unhealthy -- not for them necessarily, but for others. Surely that's not the intent here.
    – gotube
    Jun 12, 2023 at 1:25
  • @PeterJennings: Ben Murphy's answer is good, as far as I'm concerned.
    – Colin Fine
    Jun 12, 2023 at 10:41
  • @ColinFine OK, but since gotube agrees with me and you are both way above my pay grade in rep I will leave my answer for now, but may well remove it subject to further comments. IMHO the Ben's second example should also be are and his third is subtly different as the verb "is" applies to the process of distrust, not the plural "voters". I agree with Ben that , if you add the implicit subject , it does make sense. But then maybe the OP's sentence is fine, just not something I've come across in nearly 80 years! Jun 12, 2023 at 11:07

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