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Chinese, singular/plural

Posted by R. Berg on June 09, 2001

In Reply to: Thanks again! posted by K. Yone on June 09, 2001

: That's very interesting observation.

: It's really difficult for non-English natives like me to come up with such a level of native insitinct.

: Thanks a lot!

: K. Yone

I can imagine that it must be difficult. Here is something that might be causing difficulty: Dictionaries give "a native of China" as one definition of "Chinese" as a noun, but American speakers don't use the word to refer to one person. I would never say "My doctor is a Chinese." I say "My doctor is Chinese." (This is an easy example because my doctor really is Chinese.)

We can say "My doctor is a Russian" but not ". . . Chinese" or ". . . Portuguese." Maybe the -ese ending makes the difference.

In the example about hard-working students, we don't say "The Chinese are hard-working people," meaning a small group of Chinese students, because if we're talking about just one student we don't say "The Chinese is a hard-working person."

There are times when it is correct to call a small group "the Chinese." In reporting on a diplomatic meeting, we can say "The Chinese brought their own fax machine, and the Russians provided translators." We can say "At the Olympic Games, the Chinese won four medals in swimming." These sentences are acceptable because the diplomats or swimmers were not just individuals who happened to be Chinese; they were there to represent China. It is correct, according to the dictionaries, to say "One Chinese won a gold medal in swimming," but I don't hear people saying that. We would say one Chinese man, or Chinese woman, or Chinese athlete.

Fifty years ago, it was common to identify people by their ethnicities. You might look out your window and say "The Italian is mowing his lawn." It's not so common now.