English question: “People” vs. “The People” (国民)

「国民」 is one of very few items on WaniKani where the meaning contains the English article “the”. This one however explicitly rejects the answer “people” (without article). I am wondering if there is good reason or if I should just add “people” as a synonym.

In English, is there a difference in meaning between the terms “people” and “the people”?

I am not a native speaker. I have learned that the word “people” can mean two things:

  1. used instead of the plural form of “person”
  2. a collection of people forming a particular group (e.g. inhabitants of a country)

I have also noticed that, when used with the second meaning in mind, the word frequently gets accompanied by the article “the”. Is the same not true for the first meaning?

You use “the” when you have to be specific. Like “Go to the shop on the corner and get some bread.” or “The Taj Mahal”. So your observation is correct.

I’m answering from the point of view of English.

“The people” could be used in a sentence such as “the people in the crowd were very excited”, in which case I am referring to a specific set of people. That’s just the usual grammatical function of articles.

However, “the people” is also used in a slightly more specialised way, usually to refer to the citizens of a country, as in your example. In this usage you can omit the description which identifies which specific people you are talking about, because it is implied. It’s usually used in legal jargon or in political discourse. For example a newspaper might say “the people demand a referendum”.

Given that 国民 is referring to a country’s inhabitants, I’m guessing that you are correct in your assumption; the meaning “people” would be incorrect as it is just the plural of person, whereas “the people” is referring to The People, i.e. the inhabitants of the country.


I am grateful for your answer. They make it seem like the second case is just a special (specified) case of the first case. If so, it would clear up all my confusion about English.

But there is one aspect that still bugs me: There are certainly other ways to specify something in English, for example using relative clauses or adverbials. Do you consider the following sentence to be authentic English?

The English people is a people in Europe.

Here, “in Europe” is a adverbial clause specifying “people”. (Grammatically, it modifies the predicate. The predicate in this sentence is not an action verb but a state verb).

If that sentence were correct, than it is an instance of “people” in the second case which does not use the article “the”.

It’s not quite grammatically correct. I would change it to:

The English people is are a group of people in Europe.

“Are” is what you would use in situations when you’re talking about something that is plural, and in this case, “The English people” is a plural group. Instead of “is” you would use “are.”

As for the “a people” part, it’s not technically grammatically incorrect, but it sounds awkward. What I did was change the “a people” part into a prepositional phrase. The prepositional phrases now describe in more detail who they are and where they come from i.e. “of people in Europe.”

You could also change it to this:

The English people is are a people in Europe.

Again, we had to change the “is” to “are” because “The English” is a plural phrase. “The English” without the “people” can be a name for describing the English people and come across perfectly understandably. You could do that with any nationalities as well. “The Americans” or “The Australians” talks about the entirety of the groups of the American or Australian peoples. Then your phrase above would sound a little more natural.

As for the “The people” vocab word, it’s what I just finished explaining. “The people” is the entirety of the general populace or maybe the commoners from a king/ruler’s perspective. “The” just means that it is being specific as opposed to “a” which almost like pointing at something random. For instance if I held up a green apple and a red apple and you wanted one, you could say, “I want (a)n apple.” It doesn’t matter what color it is, you just want an apple. If you wanted the green apple though, you’d say, “I want the green apple.” Now you’re specifying exactly which one you want. Long story short, “A” is for any one of a specific object (i.e. an apple) and “the” is for a specifying which item out of a group of similar or different items (i.e. the green apple).

There’s a couple other nuances to “a” vs “the”, but this is a basic rundown. I hope I answered your question though.


I don’t have the grammatical know-how to be able to answer you confidently (I worry that I would tell you something wrong and just further muddy the waters!). Hopefully cgsmith2’s answer has been helpful.

I just wanted to note, in case it’s relevant / helps you make sense of things, that ‘people’ is a tricky word in English that has evolved over time and continues to do so. As you note, people is the plural of person. However, in origin it was a singular collective noun. The ‘proper’ plural of person is ‘persons’, and it is also therefore possible to use ‘peoples’ as a plural of people. So, for example, you could talk about “the peoples of Europe”, which would refer to the multiple groups of people within Europe.

The usage of ‘people’ as a plural for ‘person’ developed over time as people (hehehe) started to prefer using ‘persons’ exclusively when you want to indicate countable, specific individuals, and ‘people’ for general, uncountable groups. We have now evolved into a situation where ‘people’ is used even for countable situations (e.g. “there were twenty people at the concert”), and ‘persons’ is becoming an increasingly formal and perhaps even old-fashioned term.

So essentially, as a noun, it has two very similar but different meanings: it can refer to the concept of ‘people’ (humans) generally/collectively (1), or to the members of a specific group (2). So for example:

“there are people over there” (1)
“people around the world felt the aftershock” (1)
“twenty people were injured in the crash” (1)
“the people of Switzerland are unhappy” (2)
“the peoples of Europe share many cultural roots” (2)
“the people have expressed their outrage” (2)


It’s of course possible to use the words “the people” in English and have it not be 国民, but 国民 can be translated as “the people” and it has a different connotation than just “people.”


Doesn’t “the people” also carry a connotation of citizenship, as in “We, the people…”

I always thought the 国 in 国民 hinted at that.


“We, the people” is exactly what I use in my head to keep it straight.

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I suppose the other English word which means all the citizens of one country lumped together is the ‘citizenry’.

Is that British English? I don’t think I’ve heard of “citizenry” before.

It appears in Merriam Webster so American too. It is quite formal and old fashioned, but it does mean something that no other single word does - a combination of population and citizen essentially.

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