Ask LLOG: "(the) people who"

« previous post | next post »

A retired English teacher sent in this question:

Please look at a) and b):

a) The American government spends billions of dollars a year defending the rights of people who cannot defend themselves because they are weak.

b) For your examples of injustice, you mention only birth defects. Horrible as they are, they make up only a small percentage of human suffering. What about the misery that is the direct result of human action or inaction?

As you see, in a), PEOPLE is followed by a restrictive relative clause and in b) MISERY is followed by a restrictive relative clause, too. But why isn't there a "the" in front of PEOPLE but there is a "the" in front of MISERY? I think a restrictive relative clause always makes the noun which is in front of it identified. So, a "the" is needed.

As a matter of observable fact, the proposed generalization is wrong. The proverb "People who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones" is fine without an initial the.

And it's easy to find other examples of restrictive relative clauses (or as Geoff Pullum would prefer, "integrated relative clauses")  with indefinite plural heads —

Oscar Wilde, The Remarkable Rocket: I have always been of opinion that hard work is simply the refuge of people who have nothing whatever to do.

Rudyard Kipling, At the Pits Mouth: 'Into Tibet,' said the Tertium Quid, 'ever so far from people who say horrid things, and hubbies who write stupid letters.

G.K. Chesterton, The Pursuit of Mr Blue: 'Yes,' said Father Brown. 'I'm rather fond of people who are fools and failures on their own confession.'

Henry James, The Author of Beltraffio: I have seen people who were grave and gay in quick alternation; but Mark Ambient was grave and gay at one and the same moment.

New York Times: In other words, they liked stars – people who shone on the stage, people who had charisma.

Forbes: Now, this piece isn't in any way meant to poke fun at people who predicted failure for the iPhone.

NHS: A Canadian study found that people who lived within 50 metres of a busy road were 7% more likely to develop dementia than people who live at least 300 metres away.

New Yorker: Business leaders have repeatedly said they want to hire people who can think and judge, follow complicated instructions, understand fellow-workers, stand up and talk in a meeting.

In these examples, an added pre-head the would shift the meaning, often over the boundary into oddity.

What's the difference? It's just the usual difference between the range of meanings available to definite versus indefinite plurals:

Lions are fierce.
The lions are fierce.

Cobwebs hung from the rafters.
The cobwebs hung from the rafters.




  1. Bob Moore said,

    January 12, 2017 @ 5:31 pm

    "People" without a determiner is not just indefinite, like "some people". It is a bare plural, which is sometimes an existential indefinite ("[Some] People who didn't have appointments filled the waiting room.") and sometimes a generic ("[All? Most?] People who have not registered to vote will be turned away.") At one time Greg Carlson was the leading expert on these constructions, but I don't know if his work has been superseded by something more recent.

    [(myl) I meant "indefinite plural" in the morphological rather than semantic sense, but maybe the use of loaded terms like "indefinite" and "restrictive" is part of what led my correspondent to concoct a "rule" that's so easily shown to be false to fact.]

  2. Cervantes said,

    January 12, 2017 @ 5:46 pm

    In (b) "misery" without the preceding "the" would not offend, either.

  3. Guy said,

    January 12, 2017 @ 6:55 pm

    I'm sure it's easy to find examples with explicitly indefinite articles too. An example I just made up is "I'm looking for a house that's big enough for my whole family", and here a definite article would clearly be inappropriate.

  4. JPL said,

    January 12, 2017 @ 7:32 pm

    As commenters above have suggested, NP + restrictive relative clause constructions where the NP is without the definite determiner (including "what about misery that is the direct result …") are generic in meaning (can be paraphrased with "any + NP"; and crucially, reference is to an open- ended set of objects), while cases with the definite determiner (including "defending the rights of the people who protested yesterday …") may refer to a plurality of objects, where the set of referents is definite, but not open- ended.

  5. Xmun said,

    January 12, 2017 @ 9:13 pm

    Mark's reduplication isn't bad grammar, just bad typing.

  6. RBL said,

    January 13, 2017 @ 1:21 am

    Would your correspondent have been better off arguing for "those (people) who"? Not that a determiner is necessary here. But at least it wouldn't suffer the shift in meaning.

  7. John Walden said,

    January 13, 2017 @ 3:10 am

    To paraphrase comments already made, my tuppence-worth is this:

    I tell my Spanish-speaking students that 'the' often means 'this/that/these/those'.

    In the cases of:

    "That seems to be the rights of (the) people who cannot defend themselves because they are weak"

    "What about (the) misery that is the direct result of human action or inaction?"

    it seems to work that way.

  8. JPL said,

    January 13, 2017 @ 5:13 am

    Just to throw in some examples in anticipation of cross-ling. data,

    "There are no people who can not defend themselves because they are too weak."
    "There is no misery that is not the direct result of human action."

  9. George said,

    January 13, 2017 @ 5:13 am

    I agree with Cervantes that the absence of a 'the' in example (b) wouldn't shock either, although it's probably preferable because it is preceded by a reference to and contrasted with another type of misery – that caused by birth defects (even if the word used is 'suffering' rather than 'misery').

    With 'people' there's another factor that hasn't been mentioned yet: the ambiguity of the term 'the people', which, while it can be a de facto plural of 'person', can also mean what the French would call 'le peuple'. Avoiding the definite article is a way of avoiding that ambiguity.

  10. George said,

    January 13, 2017 @ 5:18 am

    … and, yes, I know that punctuation would also take care of that ambiguity but, given that we don't need a 'the', why create a problem needing to be solved?

  11. George said,

    January 13, 2017 @ 5:24 am

    Sorry about rambling on but I'm including the fact that there isn't a comma in the 'punctuation' category.

  12. ardj said,

    January 15, 2017 @ 9:11 am

    @George. Unambiguity rules, & the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light

  13. tedpamulang said,

    January 16, 2017 @ 5:01 am

    As a teacher of English for business purposes, I offer to my students this practical rule of thumb:

    If we know "which one(s)", use "the".
    Note: "Which one(s)" is not the same as "what kind".

    Sentence a: What kind of people (not which people), so "the" is not needed.
    Sentence b: Which misery, so "the" is needed.

RSS feed for comments on this post