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If I say:

I have to change my file names.

What does an English speaker understand?

  1. "I have to change names of a single file."
  2. "I have to change names of many files."

What is the rule here?

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up vote 12 down vote accepted

Since a single file is understood to have only a single name (in most cases), I would interpret this as "I have to update names of many files". The existence of the plural (names) gives the impression that there is meant to be many of something, and files is the more logical choice.

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I agree, there is an implied plural here. If the speaker said "Update my file tags" or "file links" this implication would not be there as one file could have many tags or links to it. – AdamV Sep 4 '10 at 9:44

Are you sure they didn't mean

I have to update my filenames

According to here filename is a noun defined as

A name given to a computer file to distinguish it from other files, often containing an extension that classifies it by type.

So when they said they had to update their filenames, they may have had to go through a list of files on their computer and correctly rename each one.

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Thanks for you answer but file names here is not more than example – mmonem Sep 4 '10 at 4:47
@mmonem - It'd be a good idea to use a correct example, since 'file names' would be written as 'filenames' in English, clearing up the ambiguity. – Arda Xi Sep 5 '10 at 11:49

There is no rule, but e.James has identified there is a clear implied plural here, and I agree that is how I would read it.

But the question is wrong really, it should say "how would you correcly write this sentence to be grammatically accurate and unambiguous".

If the single word "filenames" were used, that would be fine, and mean many names of many files.

If the words are separated, they are simply two nouns and need something to connect them - a possessive, in other words. Then you either have "file's names" or "files' names" to be grammatically accurate, and all ambiguity is lost. That's why grammar works!

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File = singular. Files = plural. Name = singular. Names = plural. Therefore: File names = plural. File name = singular.

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Yes but I guess the plural file names is different than the plural files names. I wanted to know the rule here – mmonem Jun 8 '11 at 8:15

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