Luke Taylor

Grammar Grater®

with Luke Taylor

Episode 51: Pesky Plurals

We're not talking about so-called regular plural forms—like the plural of book is books. Instead, we're focusing on irregular plural nouns that can be tricky. Specifically: compound nouns that are composed of a noun plus an adverb or an adjective, and plural nouns that have their roots in foreign languages.

Most compound nouns (and their plurals) are pretty straightforward.
Combine two nouns like pillow and case and you get pillowcase.
Combine a noun like blood with a verb like shed and you get bloodshed.
These are pretty easy, and so are their plurals. Trouble can arise when compound nouns are constructed using a noun plus an adjective.

The American Heritage Book of English Usage describes the construction in this way:
"Compound words, written with or without a hyphen, that consist of a noun followed by an adjective or other qualifying expression form their plurals by making the same change in the noun that is made when the noun stands alone."
Or, to illustrate:
The attorney general held a press conference.
Attorney general is a compound noun. It's constructed of a noun, attorney, and an adjective, general. Attorney is followed (and modified) by the word general. The rule states that the plural of attorney general should be formed by making the same change to the noun-attorney-that would be made if that noun were by itself—attorneys. Therefore, the plural form would be:
We had a meeting with the attorneys general of all 50 states.
There are a handful of common nouns that behave this way. Fortunately few of us encounter situations when writing or speaking where it's important to remember that multiple military trials would be courts martial or that more than one naval vessel suitable for combat would be called ships of the line or men-of-war. However, terms like mothers-in-law and passersby are common enough that it's a good idea to commit them to memory.

The other plural forms that often get sticky are foreign plural constructions. Many nouns that originally entered the language from Latin and Greek often maintain their original plurals. For example:
We added one more criterion to the other criteria.
Shiitake mushrooms are just one delicious fungus in a world of edible fungi.
Things get confusing—and the English language shows its flexibility—when plural nouns of the same origin are treated inconsistently. Outside formal academic or scientific writing, commonly used nouns in the workplace such as agenda and data have shed their original constructions.
The agendas for all of the meetings are saved in this file.
The data in the report is incorrect.
Because the rules for plural nouns are sometimes applied inconsistently, it's a good idea to heed the words of Gordon Jarvie, author of the Bloomsbury Grammar Guide. Jarvie writes, "The best advice to give with compound nouns ... is to check their spellings with a dictionary, to be consistent in one's own practice and to be watchful of other writers' practices."

Sources: The American Heritage Book of English Usage, Oxford Dictionary of Current English, Bloomsbury Grammar Guide by Gordon Jarvie.

Music from this Episode: "I Knew the Bride (When She Use to Rock and Roll)" by Nick Lowe. "Big Bad Bill (Is Sweet William Now)" by Van Halen.

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