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This is best described via an example. I believe this might be technically correct, but sounds clumsy:

You need to look through all the chemicals shelves

There are multiple shelves, of type chemical. There is a chemicals shelf times many/plural. On the other hand you could have:

You need to look through all the chemical shelves

This sounds better, but to me implies that the shelves themselves are chemicals. Obviously context factors in, in that most people would know that the shelves are not chemicals.

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Don't we have Electronics Engineers and such? Your doubts are certainly unfounded. –  Kris Jan 10 '12 at 12:33
    
@Kris: I'm not sure if my doubts are unfounded, when there seems to be a mix of answers, some indicating with the 's', some without. –  Chris Jan 10 '12 at 12:38
    
@Kris, I guess that's because an electronic engineer would have different connotations :) –  Matt Эллен Jan 10 '12 at 12:53
    
@MattЭллен - This is my exact point. Maybe my example wasn't clear, but there is a distinct difference between electronic engineer, and electronics engineer. One is a robot, one is not. Although not as clear, there is a slight difference between a chemical shelf and a chemicals shelf –  Chris Jan 10 '12 at 12:56
    
@MattЭллен: Pl also see my comment about material of construction etc., under Barrie's answer. –  Kris Jan 10 '12 at 12:57

3 Answers 3

up vote 4 down vote accepted

Plural modifiers are entirely acceptable.

Your doubt about the validity of the plural form comes from a rule in the past that noun modifiers had to be singular (apple tree, vegetable soup, rubber chicken) but today this is not an absolute and there are many examples of plural noun modifiers in everyday use, for example, parts departments, schools superintendents and options markets.

In Quirk et al., A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, the following situations are listed where a plural modifier may be used:

  1. the singular form might lead to ambiguity
    an Arts degree (a degree in the humanities) as opposed to an art degree (a degree in fine art)

  2. there is no singular form of a noun (in pluralia tantum)
    a customs officer

  3. there is a need to denote variety
    a soft drinks manufacturer [but] a car manufacturer

  4. a topical issue comes forth, often in newspaper stories. Quirk cites examples of Watergate reporting from newspapers:
    the tapes issue
    the tapes compromise
    the Watergate tapes affair
    the White House tapes mystery and other examples, including jobs cut.

In your case, chemicals shelf might be used because of the variety of chemicals. However, I disagree about the potential for confusion. Taking the example of the electronic engineer, when could that ever be interpreted as some sort of robotic device? No such thing even exists. The same applies to mechanical engineer but in that case there's no alternative.

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An electronic engineer doesn't exist yet because the electronics engineers haven't succeeded in building it. –  Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Jan 10 '12 at 14:00

you have to use -s' that means possessive and plural.

You need to look through all the chemicals' shelves

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In such constructions the noun has an attributive function, so no apostrophe is needed. –  Barrie England Jan 10 '12 at 12:27
    
-1 pl. see Barrie's answer below. –  Kris Jan 10 '12 at 12:31
    
@BarrieEngland: To my ear, "the chemical shelves" would be correct if it were referring all shelves that are used for storing chemicals in general, but "the chemical's shelves" or "the chemicals' shelves" would be correct if it were referring to the shelves that are used for storing one or more specific chemicals, e.g. if the sentence was in response to "I can't find the chemical(s) needed for Experiment Six". Would you agree with such usage? –  supercat Oct 25 '12 at 0:59
    
@supercat:The most likely response would be 'Have you looked on the shelf where we usually keep them?' –  Barrie England Oct 25 '12 at 6:51
    
@BarrieEngland: To that particular question, that could work, but I don't know that it detracts from my point: "I can't find the special tubes needed to mix the chemical(s) for Experiment Six". I would think a construct like "chemical's shelves" or "chemicals' shelves" would be a reasonable and natural response if e.g. there were groups of shelves which held chemicals for the various experiments, and most glassware was stored on glassware shelves, but the group of shelves for this particular experiment held the (perhaps non-glass) test tubes it required. My main point was that... –  supercat Oct 25 '12 at 14:43

Book shelves, not books shelves, DVD shelves, not DVDs shelves, so, yeh, chemical shelves, not chemicals shelves. Unless you really want to.

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Except, of course, chemical(s) shelves, where I tend to agree with the OP. see also my comment about EEs above. –  Kris Jan 10 '12 at 12:35
    
@Kris 'Medicine shelves' or 'medicines shelves'? I reckon it can go either way. –  Barrie England Jan 10 '12 at 12:45
    
Agreed, either way, depending on something there. An electronic engineer would be a sort of a robot, while an electronics engineer would be a human who knows electronics engineering. :) –  Kris Jan 10 '12 at 12:48
    
@Kris How about the place where you keep cleaning stuff? Isn't that a 'broom cupboard', rather than a 'brooms cupboard'? –  Barrie England Jan 10 '12 at 12:50
    
Yes. It is possible to use the preceding word as a material of construction and such in some cases, and not so in others. –  Kris Jan 10 '12 at 12:54

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