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Actually, my question is a bit broader.

AFAIK, the latter is generally incorrect: "item" is adjective so it should be singular.

However there are some well-known exceptions like "sales manager".

Could anyone explain the rule here: when is plural form acceptable?

Update: looks like here is an answer. Any comments are welcome, however.

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    I wouldn't call all noun + noun structures compound nouns. 'Particle board' is, and it can be written 'particle-board' and 'particleboard' as well. 'Oxtail soup' may be, but 'sugar soup' probably isn't used often enough to have attained compound noun status. The modifying noun, behaving for all the world like an adjective here, is called an 'attributive noun'. There is nothing wrong with your 'item list'; however, it is rather unusual to use plural attributive nouns (?items list; but sports centre is fine - though this has probably attained compound noun status through frequent use). – Edwin Ashworth Nov 19 '13 at 23:11
  • You can answer your own question if you want. – Lester Nubla Nov 20 '13 at 7:25
  • @EdwinAshworth this looks like there is no rule, but rather all pairs like 'sports centre' are sort of exceptions. So if we just pair two arbitrary nouns, it might (and most probably would) sound odd, right? – Alexander Dunaev Nov 23 '13 at 3:36
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One thing about plurals generally, is that we can sometimes think of them as a single unit.

For example, when we speak of "sports", are we speaking of "the several different activities, each of which is a sport", or are we speaking of "the single activity of engaging in sporting activities"?

The truth of the matter is that you can just as reasonable consider it either way; as a single concept that contains a plurality, or a plurality of concepts.

For the most part this is angels-on-pins stuff, but some plurals get referred to in a close-to-singular way often enough that people tend to think of them more as singular than as plural. And so sales isn't thought of as a collection of activities each of which is a sale, but as the name of an activity that businesses engage in. Sports is thought of as a thing*. Academic subjects are often referred to in the plural (mathematics, economics) but again each thought of as a thing.

And so when people go to use these words as an adjunct, they are thinking of them as singular, and while even always-plural words like trousers and scissors can become singular in trouser press and scissor blade, these words may remain in their plural form in sales manager, sports centre and mathematics textbook.

After all, when we speak and write we generally do not apply the rules rules of grammar in a fully concious way, but automatically. If we're thinking of a plural term as being singular, then we will use that plural term as if it is singular, even if the result does not fit logically with its actual plurality.

*There's some variance of use with sports with sport appearing in some cases as the name for the general activity and some papers having sport sections where some have sports sections, but that at least some usages favour the plural form here suffices to make it fit the pattern.

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