Yesterday I used the word peoples in my post. Quite deliberately, of course, but it’s also quite common for English learners to mistakenly use the word.
People being the plural of person is understandably confusing if English isn’t your first language. The words aren’t similar, and people lacks an S to make it clear that it’s a plural. People will therefore often use people as the singular form, or say persons as the plural form.
Man/men, woman/women, and child/children cause similar confusion. I always like to remind students that they’re all words to refer to people, to help them remember them. That they have such a fundamental meaning for us is also probably why these old plural forms haven’t changed much over the millennia, despite some fundamental changes in the English language.
Of course though, it is sometimes possible to say peoples. I mean, I did it, so it must be OK, surely!? Yes it is, and if you think about when you might say peoples, it makes sense. We use people when we refer to a large group of people, anywhere between 2 people and 7 billion. But sometimes, within those multitudes, we want to make further subdivisions. We might want to think about the entire population of the Earth, but also consider how we’re divided into different large groups by race, nationality, or ethnicity. In those cases then, we’re thinking about distinct large groups of people, and can say peoples. The peoples of the world, the peoples of the Americas, something like that.
You’ve also probably noticed that I’ve used fishes in the title, and the same rule applies to the word fish. If you’re simply referring to more than one fish, the plural is fish. But imagine you’re a marine biologist, and you want to tell someone about all the different species of fish in the North Atlantic. Then you’d say fishes, because each species contains a multitude of individual fish within it.
You’ve also possibly noticed that the phrase the loaves and the fishes comes from a story in the Bible, and that fishes doesn’t really apply. In the story, Jesus feeds a great crowd of people using a relatively small amount of bread and fish. Why fishes was used in the King James translation of the Bible is a bit of a mystery. It’s used at other points in the Bible, but sometimes so is fish. It might be partly down to a distinction between fish being used as food, and fish just as animals, but no-one’s quite sure why the inconsistency exists.
We can also apply a similar rule, by the way, to uncountable nouns. Think of wine and cheese. Ordinarily, with both being uncountable nouns, they can’t be made plural. If you attended a party, and there were two types of wine and four types of cheese on offer, you’d still just say, There was some nice cheese and wine at the party. But imagine you’re an expert food critic, and you’re travelling around France, sampling as many types of local cheese and wine as you can. In that case, you could refer to the cheeses and wines of France, as you’re making it clear that you’re referring to the many distinct types of cheese and wine in the country, and not just going there to grab a fistful of the nearest cheese you can find and stuff it in your face, washing it down with whatever cheap wine you can get your hands on.
I’m hungry now after all this talk of food: bring on the loaves and the fishes, but also the wines and cheeses – man can’t live on bread (and fish) alone.