Compound Nouns

Why isn’t it a gumsballs machine?

Neal Whitman, Writing for
4-minute read
Episode #288

Abstract Nouns Are Usually Plural in Compounds

The second tendency is that plurals are also more likely if the attributive noun is abstract. For example, the abstract noun “admission” is usually in the plural, in compounds such as “admissions committee,” “admissions policies,” and “admissions department.” Conversely, the concrete noun “rock” stays singular in the compound “rock pile (3).”

A Corpus Helps

With all these exceptions and all this variation, how can you actually decide whether to go with singular or plural for an attributive noun? These days you can search through multimillion-word collections of digital text, known as corpora, and find out exactly which possibility is preferred. Mark Davies of Brigham Young University has created several useful corpora, including the Corpus of Contemporary American English and the Google Books Corpus, and they’re easy to use. I’ll put a link on the transcript (http://corpus.byu.edu).

Corpora Versus Google

You may be asking, “Why bother with these corpora, when I can just use Google?” For one thing, nobody knows exactly how Google counts the number of hits it finds, and their algorithm is continually changing. On the first page of results, Google may claim to have several million hits, but by the time you get to the last page, the number will have shrunk to maybe a few hundred thousand. So you can’t get a good comparison of, say, “benefit cuts” and “benefits cuts.” Also, many of the results are duplicates. If you want a more accurate picture of how people are using the language, a corpus is the way to go, and that’s our Quick and Dirty Tip for attributive nouns.

This article was written by Neal Whitman, who has a PhD in linguistics and blogs at literalminded.wordpress.com.

Compound nouns can be weird. Find out why this is a gumball machine and not a gumballs machine.


1. Crystal, David. May 18, 2020. “On plural adjectives.” Blog post on DCblog. Accessed July 21, 2011. http://david-crystal.blogspot.com/2010/05/on-plural-adjectives.html
2. Pinker, Steven. 1999. Words and Rules. New York: HarperCollins. 185.
3. Sneed, Elisa. 2002. “The acceptability of regular plurals in compounds.” Proceedings of the 38th Meeting of the Chicago Linguistics Society, 617-631.

35.2009 365 Empty Laundry Basket  image, Ann Oro at Flickr. CC BY SA-2.0.


About the Author

Neal Whitman, Writing for Grammar Girl

Neal Whitman PhD is an independent writer and consultant specializing in language and grammar and a member of the Reynoldsburg, Ohio, school board. You can search for him by name on Facebook, or find him on Twitter as @literalminded and on his blog at literalminded.wordpress.com.