How to Form Plurals of Compound Nouns

By Mark Nichol

Many compound nouns present a challenge when it comes to determining how to convert them from singular to plural form. The solution usually seems simple enough — slap on an s — but the plural appendage doesn’t automatically go at the very end. Here’s the rule about how to figure out whether to write that, for example, during your last golf game, you shot two hole-in-ones or two holes-in-one. (After all, just because you’re lying doesn’t mean you should ignore proper grammar.)

The plural inflection — s or its variants — should be attached to the element of an open or hyphenated compound noun that changes in number. Hence, for example, “chief of staff” becomes “chiefs of staff,” not “chief of staffs” and “mother-in-law” becomes “mothers-in-law,” not “mother-in-laws.”

Some terms, however, are ambiguous: Should you write “attorney generals,” or “attorneys general”? The former treatment disregards that attorney is the key element; general, in this usage, is an adjective, not a noun. (This reverse placement of adjective and noun is a legacy of the French origin of the term.)

But “attorneys general” seems stilted and odd to many people, who prefer treating such compound designations like military ranks: A reference to more than one brigadier general, for example, would mention “brigadier generals,” not “brigadiers general,” even though general, recall, was originally a postnominative adjective.

However, similar terms are straightforward: “Secretary-elect” becomes “secretaries-elect,” and the plural form of “heir apparent” is “heirs apparent.”

Note that the rule does not refer to closed compounds, because in this type of compound, the element that changes number is invariably at the end: More than one headache involves multiple aches, not a plurality of heads (notwithstanding that reference can be made to more than one person having a headache at a time), mention of two or more copies of a handbook correctly emphasizes book, not hand, and households is likewise the correct form for describing more than one household.

But there are exceptions, as in reference to more than one passerby; that’s because, unlike the examples given above, this closed compound does not consist of two nouns combined in one word. Passersby, too, observes the general rule that the changeable element receives the plural inflection.

And what of compoundlike words formed from the combination of a noun and the suffix -ful? Dictionaries, responding to variable usage, list both a plural form in which the plural inflection follows the noun and a variant in which the s is appended after -ful. However, some people find the former structure awkward (handsful, teaspoonsful), while the -fuls form (handfuls, teaspoonfuls), to many, looks and sounds more logical.

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7 Responses to “How to Form Plurals of Compound Nouns”

  • Rao H D

    But, the British and Americans differ on the method of pluralizing attorney general. Attorney general, made plural, forms attorneys general in American English, attorney generals in British English.

  • Joyce Gram

    When in doubt, consult a good, up-to-date dictionary. It’s unwise to try to remember or to work it through using logic.

  • Bo Udreau

    Handfuls is correct because handful is its own distinct quantity. It is easier to picture 5 handfuls of dirt than 5 hands full of dirt. Teaspoonfuls is ridiculous. It should just teaspoons (but not teasspoon).

  • Sally

    Agree with Bo, disagree with Rao HD.

    And, Mark, one doesn’t say ‘brigadiers general’ for the same reason one doesn’t say ‘leftenants general’ (‘lootenants general’ for you ‘Mer’kans), because the title of the rank is treated as a single word – in fact in Commonwealth, the former rank is usually referred to informally simply as ‘brigadier.’

    My father was at university during a time of constitutional crisis (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Constitutional_crisis#Australia). The students were marching along chanting “No More Governor-Generals.” Then someone realized the mistake, and apparently one could hear the ripple effect of the change to “No More Governors-General”!

  • thebluebird11

    I’m with Bo too. I think that these words in particular (handfuls, teaspoonfuls) represent vaguely specific measurements. It could be cause for error if, for example, a printed recipe called for 3 teaspoonsful of something. The fact that more than 1 teaspoon of the ingredient is needed really calls for the S to be at the end, so there is no mistake of the plurality there. I agree that the word teaspoon doesn’t require -ful at the end.
    You didn’t finish addressing the hole-in-one issue, it seems, but IMHO it seems that if you’re going to lie (haha) and say you got more than one hole-in-one, you should say you got two hole-in-ones, because otherwise it sounds as if there were two holes in one, which makes no sense. The idea is that the feat of getting the ball in the hole was accomplished with ONE [stroke], so I say, put the S after “one,” not “hole.” The phrase is not similar to “mother-in-law.” There is an unexpressed concept in the phrase hole-in-one; it leaves unsaid the fact that it was a hole in one STROKE. In this case, you could theoretically have a hole in two, a hole in three, and so on; so, the number is what changes, not the hole, and on that rule my opinion is based.

  • Sharon Walthew

    The issue is which is the noun and which is the adjective? In the case of Generals, Brigadier, Lieutenant and Major are the adjectives, so Brigadier Generals is correct. In the case of Sergeant Major, Sergeant is the noun, hence Sergeants Major, Sergeants First Class but, on the other hand, Master Sergeants (since the rank is Master Sergeant not Sergeant Master). Once we get into the realm of previously compound words that are now single nouns such as handful, there is only one place to put the plural since the hyphen is lost. The argument has been won, in essence, by the elimination of the hyphen.

  • venqax

    I think I disagree with Rao and Bo. I don’t know why Britsih would say attorney-generals– and I’ve never seen that before. AND while teaspoonfuls might seem ridiculous, it is correct. A teaspoon is a spoon. A teaspoonful is a unit of measure, pluralized with a final S just like ounce/ounces. Just like handfuls or tablespoonfuls. I’ll admit it sounds a bit odd.

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