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The "Standard of Ur" from ancient Mesopotamia

The "Standard of Ur" from ancient Mesopotamia

17 October 2007

Copyediting: The mysterious middle s

I haven’t blogged on a copyediting topic since April, so it’s well past time. Today’s subject: plural formation.

Because of its mixed ancestry, the English language makes nouns plural in numerous ways. Plurals could provide grist for many weeks of entries. Today, I’ll focus on an often overlooked, often confusing class of nouns: compound nouns.

Compound words are just what they sound like: two or more words stuck together to mean a single concept.

Some compound nouns are easy to punctuate. Doghouse, skyscraper, teaspoonful, breakthrough, and city council all take a final “s”: doghouses, skyscrapers, teaspoonfuls, breakthroughs, city councils.

Others are tricky. They may take an “s,” but not at the end. Examples are:
•fleur de lis —> fleurs de lis (although fleur de lis is an alternative plural)
•passerby —> passersby
•surgeon general —> surgeons general
•attorney general —> attorneys general
•pâté de foie gras —> pâtés de fois gras
•mother-in-law —> mothers-in-law
•coup d’état —> coups d’état
•chief of staff —> chiefs of staff

How do you know where to put the “s” in a compound word? The easiest way is to check the electronic dictionary on your computer or the hardcopy that sits by your side. (You do keep at least one dictionary always at hand, right?)

Alternatively, follow the rule given by The Associated Press Stylebook and The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage: Add the “s” to the most important word in a multiword compound noun. Of course, then you have to decide which word is most important.

Or try the lazy way. If you look at most compound nouns, you’ll find that only one of the words in it is a noun. If you add the “s” to the end of the noun, you’ll usually be right.

There are exceptions, though, to the lazy way. For example, compound nouns that end in ”ful” use an “s” at the end: handfuls, cupfuls. Your ear will usually be able to tell you when you have the "s" in the wrong place.


Lisa said...

Hmm. So all this time, I actually thought that it should be teaspoons full or cups full. Apparently I was worrying needlessly, and I was probably avoiding using anything that looked like either since none of the choices sounds quite right to me. Thanks for clearing this up!

Shauna Roberts said...

LISA, your comment reminded me that there's a fourth method copyeditors have for dealing with problem plurals: Reword the sentence. Avoidance is often the best plan!

Charles Gramlich said...

Fortunately, most of the time my ear trumps my brain. My brain is easily confused.

Farrah Rochon said...

I'm bookmarking this one. I'm so bad trying to figure out where to put the "s".

Sidney said...

I love mulling over those sorts of things. It's a little like contemplating collective nouns.

Shauna Roberts said...

CHARLES, in copyediting I often come across people with tin ears. It's rare among professional writers, but I've copyedited scientific papers by native English speakers that sound as unnatural as those written by foreigners. Since I did not grow up hearing standard English spoken, I can't always count on my ear to pick the correct thing. So I've made a point of reading lots of grammar and usage books and memorizing the rules.

FARRAH, I'll copy some pages for you on plurals once I get my reference books unpacked.

SIDNEYYou're pulling my leg, right? If you really are as much a word geek as me, I hope you do an better job of not boring your friends and family with grammar minutiae than I do.

Bernita said...

I'm sure I make mistakes, but I'm glad I had this stuff generally hammered into my head at a young age.
You're right, one's ear is usually a good guide.