In my current translation project I have a few lines where I would use a singular noun to refer to a group of people. For example,

But be careful around the Fair Folk. They can be fickle, and you do not want to cross them.

The Fair Folk rarely reveal themselves to travelers, and are seen only when they wish to be seen, save perhaps at Midsummer's Eve.

I am translating "the Fair Folk" (fairies) as "das holde Volk," so it is a singular noun.

I have read this post (https://german.stackexchange.com/a/411/30970) explaining that singular verbs should be used for nouns which refer to groups of people, e.g. "die Familie ist..." However I am not sure if this applies to pronouns referring to the same noun in a subsequent sentence. Can the "they" in the first line above be just "sie," with a 3rd person plural verb, or should it be "es" with a verb in the 3rd person singular to fit with the subject of the previous sentence?

  • 1
    Just a side remark: while "Fair Folk" is a rather common expression (idiom) in English "das holde Volk" is not. You might want to say "die Elfen" or "das Elfenvolk" (also "Elben", "Alben", ...) rather than the unidiomatic "das holde Volk".
    – bakunin
    Commented Jul 17, 2023 at 8:29

2 Answers 2


A plural pronoun in a text can refer back to a group that has been introduced by a singular noun. I think, there is no strong reason to expect that English and German would differ here, for it is no longer a question of grammar. (Such phenomena are called "bridging" in linguistics; you refer to an idea that has been evoked by previous text, not to the earlier expression – people would forget it anyway in the course of a longer text).

No problem at all in: "Das Holde Volk zeigt sich selten. Man kann sie nur dann sehen, wenn sie gesehen werden wollen." It is even better this way, because what you might see is always a number of individuals, not the "Volk" as a whole. But note that I inserted a full stop... within the same clause the German-English grammatical difference may apply, hence: "Das Holde Volk zeigt sich selten und ist nur dann zu sehen, wenn..."

PS: Interestingly, I get a worse result for: "Das Holde Volk zeigt sich selten. (?) Sie sind nur dann zu sehen, wenn..." Just my intuition: I would rather avoid this version although readers can perhaps be pushed to accept it. My guess is that it is because of the parallel structure: From the subject pronoun in the second sentence, you instinctively look back to the previous subject for resolution, and then you notice that the number feature differs. So bridging works better when the connection between sentences is loose and distant.

Incidentally, Germans have similar problems in cases like "Das Mädchen ... Es/sie..." The grammar book of your choice might say something about this problem, and it should be fairly analogous.


This is a question of logical rigour, not about grammar as such.

Use es in the followup sentence if you want to refer to those people acting as a single entity but sie if you want to refer to its individual members who share properties.

Nimm dich in Acht vor dem Holden Volk. Sie sind launisch, wankelmütig gar!

You cannot use es in that context because launisch and wankelmütig aren't properties of a Volk but of individuals.

Das Holde Volk war ihm nicht wohlgesonnen. Er vermutete sogar, es hätte ihm insgeheim den Krieg erklärt.

In that context you cannot use sie because the declaration of war doesn't happen on individual level. If you used sie, the reader may assume it's more than one Volk involved. Peoples, not people.

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