The Grammarphobia Blog

Plural jam

Q: After being so careful to say “daughters-in-law” and “passersby,” it seems wrong to say “cupfuls” or “handfuls.” Can you explain?

A: The convention here, according to usage guides, is that you use a normal plural ending for a solid compound and that you pluralize the most important part of a compound that’s split into parts.

But what about “passersby”? It’s the exception that proves the rule (an expression we’ve discussed on the blog).

“Passerby” was two words when it first showed up in the 16th century as the plural “passers by,” according to published references in the Oxford English Dictionary.

A hyphenated version appeared in the mid-18th century and a one-word version in the late 20th century. When the hyphen was lost, though, the plural “s” remained in the middle of “passersby.”

Here’s how Pat, in her grammar and usage book Woe Is I, explains the pluralization of compound words:

“• If a compound word is solid and has no hyphen (-), put the normal plural ending at the end of the word:

Churchmen love soapboxes. Kipling appeals to schoolchildren and fishwives. Doormen are good at getting taxicabs. You don’t find Biedermeier bookcases in alleyways. Babies dump spoonfuls of jam on footstools.

“• If the word is split into parts, with or without hyphens, put the plural ending on the root or most important part (underlined in the examples):

Mothers-in-law like to attend courts-martial. Are they ladies-in-waiting or just hangers-on? Those counselors-at-law ate all the crêpes suzette. Do rear admirals serve on men-of-war?

“• Watch out for general when it’s part of a compound word. In a military title, general is usually the important part, so it gets the s. In a civilian title, general isn’t the root, so it doesn’t get the s:

Two attorneys general went dancing with two major generals. Those consuls general are retired brigadier generals.

We’ve discussed hyphens and compound words many times on the blog, including a posting a couple of years ago.

As we said then, “Often nouns begin life as two separate words (like ‘home school’ and ‘try out’), then become hyphenated words (‘home-school,’ ‘try-out’), and finally lose their hyphens as they become more common (‘homeschool,’ ‘tryout’).”

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