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Hypothesis: compound nouns that are unhyphenated single words can be pluralized by adding an “s” to the noun root only when they consist of a noun + preposition.

This is a follow-up to an earlier question

Numerous examples are given in the Answers to that Question listing compound nouns that pluralize in the middle by adding an “s” to the head or root noun, such as sons-in-law and secretaries general.

However, other than passersby, (the word posed in the question and the word that got me thinking, before I found that question), and standersby (for which I cannot find an online definition), all of the examples in that Q&A, and those that I can think of or find, are either hyphenated or written as an unhyphenated noun phrase.

Virtually all of these spaced or hyphenated examples are either noun + adjective or noun + prepositional phrase. The only exception in the examples from the earlier Question is spoonsful, but this seems to be a less favored variant of spoonfuls (although Microsoft considers spoonfuls incorrect and spoonsful correct).

There are other single word, unhyphenated compound constructions that serve as nouns which consist of a verb form + preposition which pluralize the usual way, such as

shutouts

takeovers

flybys

Is it possible that the reason for the passersby type construction (plural noun root, no space, no hyphen) is the particular combination of noun + preposition? This appears to be a rather rare construction.

I have reviewed word lists in onelook.com for any construction with a [word]+s+preposition by searching *sby and other *s[preposition] combinations. (I could not search *s+in because of the volume.)

The only other examples I have found are strikesthrough and sneaksby. The only reference to strikesthrough is a Wiktionary entry which considers the overall word to be a verb, but several of the listed cites appear to be typos. Sneaksby is actually a singular form.

One or two examples are a poor way to make a rule, but could it be that this particular plural form is limited to this particular parts-of-speech structure?

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2 Answers 2

up vote 4 down vote accepted

In English there's no such thing as a plural form for an adjective or a preposition. So if you have a compound noun, like "court martial", to make it plural you should pluralize the noun and not the adjective. Hence, "courts martial". There aren't two martials; there are two courts.

Similarly, "passersby" make sense because there are two "passers", not two "byes". "Two spoonsful" because there are two spoons that are full, not two fulls that are spoon. Etc.

But "flyby" is in a different category. It is a noun formed by combining a verb and a preposition. There are not two "byes", but neither are there two "flies". Similarly with "takeover" and "shutout". There is no "inner noun" in these cases to pluralize. So it is the combined word as a whole that is a noun, and it makes sense to pluralize it as a whole word and not as a compound.

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Grands Prix is an accepted form of the plural of Grand Prix in English as well as French. Blond / blonde is possibly the only English adjectival lexeme which inflects for gender. –  Edwin Ashworth Aug 28 '12 at 22:23
    
'courts martial' referes to multiple courts, but 'courtmartials' refers to multiple courtmartial acts, so both plurals seem ok to me. –  Gaston Ümlaut Aug 29 '12 at 3:34
    
@Gaston I've never seen that usage of "courtmartial". Do you have a reference? –  Jay Aug 29 '12 at 14:56
    
A quick google search shows a number of examples, mostly being cases of multiple people being courtmartialled in the one court (-martial): the Bounty; some Marines; military law. –  Gaston Ümlaut Aug 30 '12 at 11:53
    
@GastonÜmlaut I meant a reference explicitly stating that this is how the term is used. Many people pluralize "court-martial" as "court-martials", but I have always taken it that they were just making a mistake. –  Jay Aug 30 '12 at 14:02

According to Warriner's English Grammar and Composition (1977), most plurals of compound nouns are formed in accordance with two rules. First:

The plural of compound nouns written as one word is formed by adding s or es.

EXAMPLES: spoonfuls, cupfuls, leftovers, strongboxes

Second:

The plural of compound nouns consisting of a noun plus a modifier is formed by making the modified word plural.

To determine the word that is modified in a compound word, make each of the parts plural. The modified word is the one that tells what the entire compound is or does. Thus the plural of notary public is notaries public (they are notaries not publics); the plural of mother-in-law is mothers-in-law (they are mothers, not laws); etc.

EXAMPLES: runners-up, editors in chief, lieutenant governors, poets laureate

However, this book does note some exceptions:

The plural of a few compound nouns is formed in irregular ways.

EXAMPLES: drive-ins, stand-bys, six-year-olds, tie-ups

At least in the examples that Warriner's gives, all of the exceptions involve hyphenated compounds. The Chicago Manual of Style and Words Into Type concur with Warriner's on the general rules, but they don't address the exceptions.

Of course, as language marches on, hyphenated forms sometimes become closed-up forms, with the result that a plural that used to follow the Warriner's rule (like passers-by) suddenly becomes an exception to the rule (passersby). In this particular instance, passers-by was the standard spelling up through Merriam-Webster's Sixth Collegiate Dictionary (1943), and passersby took over from the Seventh Collegiate (1963) forward.

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