Several psycholinguists1,2 have observed that English speakers do not use regular plurals in compounds, even when the noun refers to more than one instance (dog-catcher, *dogs-catcher), but do use irregular plurals in compounds where the noun refers to more than one instance (teeth-marks, mice-infested).

I was stumped in writing the following sentence (in a discussion about a subject relating to professional women):

? One of the smartest woman mentors I've ever known told me....

I tried the obvious rewrite:

? One of the smartest women mentors I've ever known told me....

Neither feels right. The boggle definitely seems to be due to the irregular:

One of the smartest firefighter mentors I've ever known told me....

* One of the smartest firefighters mentors I've ever known told me....

(Assume in this case that the mentor is a firefighter, but did not mentor me in firefighting, in which case it would equivocally be better written "one of the smartest firefighting mentors".)

The psycholinguistics discussed in the sources above seems to apply here; because I am thinking of a specific woman, but I am using the word in apposition to a plural and thus referring in abstract to all the mentors who are also women, I boggle at which is grammatically correct.

Is the woman-women boggle above just me? Or must I rework to "one of the smartest mentors who was a woman" (bad) or "one of the smartest female mentors" (not bad, but I dislike using the word "female" in this slightly dehumanizing way).

(Note that although there are several chains of duplicate questions about plurals in noun adjuncts pointing to the original "User accounts" or "users account", this question is specifically different, as it's asking about the case of irregular nouns in which the referent's number and the headword's grammatical number are in tension with one another.)

1 Pinker, Steven. Words and Rules. 1999.

2 Berent, Iris and Pinker, Steven. "The dislike of regular plurals in compounds: Phonological familiarity or morphological constraint?" The Mental Lexicon 2:2. 2007.)

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    This fact had been noted for over a century by linguists when Pinker mentioned it. It is very hard to inflect an attributive noun in English. (The term "noun adjunct" is not in wide use -- pace Huddleston and Pullum -- and I would not have thought of noun compounds immediately as what was being discussed. "Noun adjunct" can (and therefore does) mean too many different things.) As for the problem, it infests everyone. The solution is not to try to cram everything perfectly into teensy bits of phrasing; use several sentences if you've got that much to say. Oct 17, 2014 at 17:43
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    Does woman mentors refer to mentors of women, or women who are mentors. In the latter case I would say female mentors.
    – Barmar
    Oct 17, 2014 at 22:29
  • @JohnLawler Sorry, I sourced Pinker because it was close at hand; I don't think my text indicated he discovered this. "Attributive noun" is the term for the non-head noun; woman or women above. It's not the term for the construct. "Noun phrase with attributive noun" is both wordy and incorrect (it isn't a noun phrase without a determiner: *I saw woman mentor.). If there's a term besides "noun adjunct" for the construct, I haven't heard it.
    – Trey
    Oct 27, 2014 at 16:27
  • @Barmar So would I, but it hardly resolves the ambiguity. Mentoress is in use btw.
    – Phil Sweet
    Nov 23, 2016 at 17:45

1 Answer 1


It's not just you. Choosing a more common existing collocation, namely woman doctor, and consulting Google Ngram Viewer, we find that "women doctors" is much more common than "woman doctors", but that both exist. And since lady doctor is also common (albeit much less so than woman doctor), we have a good control group — "lady doctors" is attested, but *"ladies doctors" is not (at least in the Google Ngram corpus).

Here's a snapshot:

"women doctors" >> "lady doctors" > "woman doctors" >> "ladies doctors"


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