Compound Nouns

July 20th, 2023 in Grammar by April Michelle Davis 0

Why is it we have project managers but systems analysts? Gumball machines but singles bars? How do we determine which noun in a compound noun to make singular and which to make plural? Below are a few tips in helping you to decide, but first some terminology:

The first noun in a compound noun is called a qualifying noun while the second noun is the head noun.


Tip 1: Keep the Plural

If a compound noun contains a noun that only exists in the plural, it will probably stay plural as a qualifying noun.

Examples: Thanksgiving, economics textbook, clothes hamper, physics teacher

Also, if the switch from the singular to the plural form of a qualifying noun changes the meaning, people tend to keep the plural.

Example: Antiques shop: If this were an antique shop instead, we might think that antique referred to the age of the shop rather than the goods it was selling.


Tip 2: Variety

If a qualifying noun has regular singular and plural forms, try to figure out whether the compound noun refers to different types of that noun. For example, a publications catalog lists an assortment of publications. In addition, an enemies list records various individual people.

In the same token, a beekeeper is not a beeskeeper because there is not a significant difference between the kinds of bees being kept. The same rule applies for speechwriter, human rights, and movie star.


Tip 3: Abstract vs. Concrete Nouns

If the qualifying noun is abstract, it is more likely to be plural.

Examples: admissions department, admissions event

Concrete nouns such as window, rock, and book stay singular in window cleaner, rock pile, and bookcase.


Tip 4: Look It Up

As with most rules in English, there are exceptions and they’re subject to change. If you’re still unsure about a word, an online corpus is an extremely useful tool in keeping up with our ever-changing and expanding language.