Compound Plurals

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Most English nouns form their plurals by adding -s: boy/boys; house/houses.

When the noun is compound, the question sometimes arises as to which word should get the plural ending.

In regard to American usage, the Chicago Manual of Style recommends that writers consult Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary for “tricky” compounds like fathers-in-law, courts-martial, and chefs d’oeuvre, adding, “For those not listed, common sense can usually provide the answer.”

I have a lot of respect for the Chicago Manual of Style, but recommending common sense to determine correct usage seems a bit optimistic.

Compound nouns are of three kinds: open, closed, and hyphenated. Not all authorities agree as to which is which or where the plural goes.

Open compounds are written as separate words:

Grand Jury
Knight Templar
post office
court martial
free lunch

The principal word in the compound takes the plural:

Grand Juries
Knights Templar
post offices
courts martial
free lunches

Note: According to the OED, court martials is incorrect; M-W gives courts martial as the first plural, but also accepts court martials.

Most closed compounds form the plural at the end of the word:

toothbrush / toothbrushes
haircut / haircuts
grasshopper / grasshoppers
blackboard / blackboards
bedroom / bedrooms

passerby / passersby

Like open compounds, hyphenated compound nouns pluralize the principal word–if there is one. The principal word will be a noun. Some compounds have more than one noun; others have none. When the compound has two nouns, common sense will have to tell you which one is the principal word.

mother-in-law / mothers-in-law
man-of-war / men-of-war
merry-go-round / merry-go-rounds (no principal word)
forget-me-not / forget-me-nots (no principal word)
stand-in / stand-ins (no principal word)

Some compounds are hyphenated in the Oxford English Dictionary and written as one word in Merriam-Webster:

set-back (OED) setback (M-W)
drop-out (OED) dropout (M-W)
hold-up (OED) holdup (M-W)
half-sister (OED) half sister (M-W)

Some speakers have trouble with nouns that end in -ful, puzzling, for example, between cupfuls and cupsful. This is a case in which common sense should probably advise against consulting M-W.

Although the M-W entries for cupful, handful, and armful list the plurals cupfuls, handfuls, and armfuls first, they give cupsful, handsful, and armsful as alternative spellings. In addition, the spelling handfull is in there as an “also.” My American spellchecker does not countenance any of these alternatives.

Cupsful doesn’t cut it because compound nouns are made up of two or more words that can be used on their own. For example, the words in the compound policeman can be used separately: “The man called for the police.” The element ful in cupful is not a word; it’s a suffix.

Common sense tells me that cupsful is incorrect.

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7 thoughts on “Compound Plurals”

  1. . . . and in Canada the perfect example is:

    Governor General becomes Governors General

    Lieutenant Governor becomes Lieutenant Governors

    Governor is the noun in each case, yet you’d be surprised (maybe not) how often people get it wrong.


  2. The words “holdup” and “hold-up” are also two separate words with separate meanings: a noun and and adjective having to do with hosiery. These also have different meanings on the opposite sides of the Atlantic Ocean.
    Of course, a “holdup” is an act of armed robbery.
    In North America, women’s hold-up stockings have elastic bands around the tops to hold them up. In the United Kingdom, hold-up stockings apparently do not have those elastic bands, and they require “suspenders” or a girdle to hold them up the woman’s legs. Otherwise, they will fall down around her ankles.
    In the United States, these are simply called “stockings”, and that is the regular meaning. The people of the United Kingdom have their way of complicating things unnecessarily. They seem to want to have adjectives for all cases, rather than having a default meaning for words, and then adjectives or adverbs for the exceptional cases.

  3. Speaking of the word “holdup”, as in a crime, I once read a book by a lawyer about all sorts of humorous things that had happened in American courts, including in the evidence that was presented.

    In one case, a man tried to rob a bank, and he called out to the occupants, “Everybody’s hands up! This is a f***-up!”
    At that point, everone, including the attempted holdup man, burst into intense laughter that lasted for quite a while. There was nothing for anyone to do except to wait for the police to arrive and arrest the man.

    I also liked this one very much:
    The defendant was convicted and sentenced t0 237 years in prison.
    He said, “But your honor, I can’t serve that long!”
    The judge replied, “Do the best you can, son. Have a nice day.”

  4. It seems very often that what you have as a “principal” word is simply a noun and it the noun has an adjective. You always pluralize the noun. The blue cars, not the blues car. The problems arise when the common adjective-then-noun- order of English is reversed to noun-then-adjective. So, if people were just literate enough or educated enough to tell a noun from an adjective, this problem would be minimal. An attorney general is not a general who is an attorney, he is an attorney serving in a “general” function, albeit with an older definition of general. Likewise a surgeon general, postmaster general, solicitor general. A court martial is not a *martial* who is or that is (whatever a martial would be) associated with a court. It is a court that is martial. A Knight Templar is a knight of the Templars order. Not a Templar who is a knight. That one wouldn’t be as obvious unless you read…something…that talked about other orders of knights, like Knights Hospitaller, Knights Bachelor, etc.

  5. Common sense tells me that cupsful is incorrect.

    Yes. It is not a compound word, as you say, AND a “cupful” is a unit of measurement. Likewise tablespoonfuls, teaspoonfuls, handfuls. It doesn’t really sound right, but quick reflection tells you it is.

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