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Are there any cases where the plural and singular form of an English compound word or noun phrase differ in the number of words contained?

In all cases I can think of, the actual words within the noun phrase will change based on the grammatical number, but the number of words will not.

Examples,

  • large red car becomes large red cars in plural form. Both phrases have 3 words
  • this apple becomes these apples - 2 words in each form

Are there any cases where the number of words will be different?

Background: I'm writing an app that performs basic natural language processing and, if my hypothesis is true, I can simplify its implementation significantly.

  • 2
    If you're talking about orthographic words rather than lexemes, numbers will be an exception: one car ==> two hundred and seventy-one cars. Perhaps this is not a problem for you. Other quantifiers (a single example ==/==> *five single examples) don't behave nicely either. – Edwin Ashworth Oct 3 '13 at 9:42
  • In my case, I'm planning to restrict numbers to the symbols (i.e. 0-9), which I can treat as a single 'word', so I'm hoping to avoid the 'spelled-out' numbers issue. Many thanks for your reply and for highlighting the quantifier issue - that gives me something to look into. Thanks – Wheelie Oct 3 '13 at 9:56
  • There's the simple example: "a car" --> "cars". But it sounds like you already know about that, and can allow for it. – Peter Shor Oct 3 '13 at 11:40
  • What about collective nouns? A sheep vs. A flock of sheep. – Julian Oct 15 '13 at 17:42
  • @Julian That's my line of thought too. We can disregard quantifiers and adjectives because they will always remain the same (I think!). What the question boils down to is - are there any single word, singular nouns which must be 2 or more words in the plural. A flock of sheep, unfortunately, can still be written as 'sheep' (plural). – Mynamite Oct 15 '13 at 22:47
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The answer appears to be no, there aren't any such plurals. The comments section on the question have pointed out a few interesting cases but they don't apply to the specific requirements you were looking for:

numerical counts: one car => two hundred cars

article removal: a car => cars

collective nouns: a sheep => a flock of sheep

One additional exception would be adjectives that become invalidated when there are two:

a single wolf => two single wolves

But since your restriction appears to be of the form [0-9] [noun] I think you can escape these.

The only evidence I have to offer on my behalf is Wikipedia's article on plurals and their extensive irregularities section. Nothing I saw on the article had an example of what you were looking for.

If anyone happens to come across an example I am more than willing to update the answer. In the meantime, I think it is safe to say that there are no such plurals -- and if there are they are extremely rare cases.

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I'm not a native English-speaker, I'm Chinese. So My English is definately not as half good as yours. But Your question is so interesting that I would like to try to find some answer——

It took me some time to think of some words like vice-chairman, vice-champion...

As far as i know, the plural forms of these words with hyphen ought to be like "vice chairmen" and "vice champions", am I right? If so, there are some words in English with different number of words in plural/singular form.

  • 1
    No, sorry; it's vice-chairmen and vice-champions. A vice champion would be something quite different! (Because vice has a number of meanings.) – Andrew Leach Oct 18 '13 at 7:00
  • Oh, I made a mistake. But, when and where did i I see "vice chairmen" and "vice presidents" then? – dennylv Oct 18 '13 at 8:33
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    It's acceptable not to hyphenate (although it's usual to do so). The thing is that plurals don't lose the hyphen. – Andrew Leach Oct 18 '13 at 8:37
  • @AndrewLeach It wouldn't mean anything, though, would it? Apart from the normal usage as 'substitute', vice isn't an adjective. So a vice champion wouldn't really mean anything. Or does it? – mikhailcazi Oct 18 '13 at 11:58
  • @mikhailcazi Nouns can be used attributively. Vice as a noun – Andrew Leach Oct 18 '13 at 12:00

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