Tuesday 18 May 2010

On plural adjectives

A correspondent writes to ask why we say a drinks cabinet and not a drink cabinet, given that people use the singular form of nouns when they function as adjectives - a price list, a shoe box, and so on - even if the entities involved are more than one. He adds: 'As a teacher, I have always taught the rule that there are no plural adjectives in English - the big men, the young ladies, etc. - and therefore when a noun acts as an adjective it should not take an s.'

It's true that attributive nouns are normally neutral with respect to number; so we say Toothpaste protects against tooth decay, even though we're talking about all our teeth, I sat in an armchair, even though the chair has two arms, and a five-pound note, a three-year-old child, and so on, even though in postmodifying position the expressions would be plural - a child of three years, a note worth five pounds. But there are several kinds of exception, which are very common in British English and unusual in American English.

When people talk about a concept that is an institution or organization, the tendency is to keep the plural form, and this is especially so when there's a semantic contrast with the singular form:

an examinations committee
a prints and drawings exhibition
the heavy chemicals industry
the Obscene Publications Act
an arts degree [vs an art degree]
a careers administrator [someone who looks after careers in an institution] vs a career administrator [someone who has gone in for administration as a career]

The plural is also likely when there's a contrast between generic ('kinds of') and specific meanings. This is where drinks comes in, for a drinks cabinet means 'a cabinet in which various kinds of drink are to be found'. Other examples are entertainments listing and savings bank. And nouns which don't have a singular (in a particular sense) keep their ending:

clothes basket
arms race
Commons decision
honours degree
mains adaptor
contents list

Stylistic factors are also involved. Newspaper headlines in particular like to use adjectives attributively, as it saves space. So we encounter such headlines as:

Strikes issue back on the table
Recordings compromise reached

There's quite a bit of individual variation, though:

grassroot(s) level
saving(s) account
system(s) analyst
wage(s) freeze
communication(s) network
archive(s) administrator

And, actually, drinks cabinet is a further example, with some firms advertising drink cabinets these days (as a Google search quickly shows). It's an interesting area of language change, especially with American English usage influencing British English.


Mike Church said...

A brilliant overview of a language point that has had me quite flummoxed ... until now. Thank you.

Unknown said...

This stands as an excellent example of how a language topic should be presented. Regarding my thoughts on the subject, I can't improve on the last line of the original presentation.

Barrie England said...

Just heard on 'Today': 'Here's our athletic correspondent'.

Sarah said...

Great exegesis there, thank you. Obviously some variantions of usage can alter meaning - the "athletic correspondent" is presumably one who keeps extremely fit, as opposed to the correspondent who reports on the subject of athletics, and someone with an art degree studied Art, instead of some unspecified subject listed under Humanities. Possibly the examination committee would have to delierate about one specific exam rather than all of them. So should we expect a drink cabinet to only contain, say, whisky, or a single serving of alcohol?

DC said...

I've not come across it in that sense. All the examples I've looked at are generic. But I can easily imagine it being used, especially in a humorous situation.

Virtual Linguist said...

I always hesitate when it comes to writing trade/ trades union (and dictionaries don't help as they give both). It looks as if it should be plural, trades union, since it is an institution.

Clarissa at Talk to the Clouds/Readable said...

On the specific phrase, both "drinks cabinet" and "drink cabinet" sound off to me (as an American). How funny. (I guess I would say "liquor cabinet.")

It's very difficult to get my Japanese clients to not pluralize nouns modifying other nouns. Once they've learned the (American) rule, their (Japanese) usage particularly tends to persist in phrases with "store," "stand," and "shop," because (if they're not reading enough) "chocolate shop" or "fruit stand" doesn't sound very different from "chocolates shop" or "fruits stand," which is what they would tend to write.

Very interesting, at any rate! I always look up to "DCblog" lighting up in my Google Reader.

David Crosbie said...


If I thought that students would appreciate it, I used to blow their minds -- and, hopefully, raise their consciousness -- with accounts of otherwise non-existent singular forms in, for example: knicker-elastic, scissor-grinder, trouser press.

Claudia said...

DC's explanations are illuminating as usual; there are also some in-depth ones in the chapter "Of mice and men" in S. Pinker's "Words and Rules". I dare write this suggestion for further reading here because I think DC appreciates SP's work too. :-)

R G Hay said...

Aren't these examples of nouns being used attributively?

DC said...

That's an alternative analysis, which you can make if you want. Note that we are actually dealing with an intermediate category here - something which is neither adjective or noun.

Anonymous said...

Dear Professor

I wonder if the expression "Alcoholics Anonymous" falls into the plural adjectives category, the nouns used attributively category, or both! Thanks a lot!

DC said...

Neither. This is a postposed adjective, quite often found in titles and proper names. Other examples include Asia MInor and Poet Laureate, institutionalized expressions such as heir apparent and attorney general, and a few other cases where the adjective typically occurs after the noun, such as the people involved. For a fuller list, see the Quirk Grammar, §7.21.

Chris Elston said...

Last week I read over an email I had written and discovered I had used both "camps programme" and "camp programme" in the content. Trying to analyse why I had subconsciously chosen one or the other, I noticed that in the introduction I was thinking of the programme being used in many camps and had selected "camps programme", but when I was focusing on the programme itself I had changed to "camp programme".

Anonymous said...

We do have plural adjectives in English.


Those words are plural adjectives in "those/these shoes"

DC said...

These/those aren't adjectives. They are determiners. They can also be pronouns, as in I like these. But never adjectives, unless the class of adjectives is extended to include all determiners, which would be pointless.

Iacopo said...

Plural adjectives do exist: think of "chestnut", "grey", and "bay" when used to refer to racing horses (e.g. It looks like those greys are ganging up on that chestnut). Of course the function of such adjectives would be the head of a noun phrase (better yet, they would fulfil the function of the omitted head), but their nature would still be adjectival and their number-inflection plural. I even saw a sign saying "No sharps" meaning "no sharp objects" at an airport (Google it for evidence).

DC said...

It'a an analytic decision whether you call these items adjectives or not. Some grammars would call them a class of nouns.

Anonymous said...

In proofreading an office publication, I suggested correcting a student's account of his "freshmen friends" to "freshman friends" for the reason you state (i.e., a noun used as an adjective should be singular).

My colleagues strongly disagreed, arguing that there are many cases when the plural noun is used. They gave the phrase "women friends" as an example.

I persisted and gave as evidence the parallel formations of "senior friends" or "sophomore friends" (both singular nouns used as adjectives), but they dismissed this point.

Any thoughts?

DC said...

The post acknowledges the point that there are many cases of plural usage. As I said, you have to look at each case as it arises. as 'friends' is already plural, this would tend to make a plural adjective not needed. But there's no rule in English which forbids repetition (here, of plurality) for reinforcement.

chicote said...

The widespread use of plural nouns as adjectives is an INNOVATION in modern British English which HAS NOT spread to, or become standard in, American English. This has created a DIFFERENCE in British and American English:
Drugs policy
Drug policy

Britain as the innovator is nothing new: "FALL weather" WAS British centuries ago, isn't now.
Other examples: broom
phonological examples include the LACK OF BROADENED "A": "ask" with a front vowel was once universal, but after about 1750, "ask" with a back vowel spread in Southeastern Britain and in some East Coast cities of the US. Later, the broadened "a" retreated in America, and became standard in Britain. The same is true with the "dropped r"

YC said...

Very clarifying. How about "we thought they were brunettes" brunettes would be thr adjective of the sentence, wouldn't it?

DC said...

The plural form here indicates that it's a noun.

Unknown said...

So very interesting! What about, in referring to a statistical value (e.g., median, average, minimu, etc.) "Median months interval"? Can 'months' be a plural here? Or should it be "median months' interval? (i.e., making it a possessive)? "median month interval" sounds weird.

DC said...

True enough. I guess in these cses one would fall back on a semantic criterion: does the interval in some sense 'belong' to the month? If yes, then the possessive usage is motivated. I think that's how I'd take it.