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As I understand, correct plural versions of passerby and attorney general become passersby and attorneys general. But why?

With passerby, the the preposition "by" has been combined with the noun "passer" to become a one word noun "passerby". So why shouldn't this be passerbys?

If I am an attorney general, and you are an attorney general, why are we not attorney generals? As an American I have always heard it as attorneys general, however this article suggests British English does use "attorney-generals" (as well as an interesting 2nd paragraph that further probes my question).

Are there hard rules to this topic? Or merely generally accepted practices based on locale?

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Basically for the same reason that one blue sweater plus one blue sweater do not become two blues sweater.

Blue describes the head sweater, and whether there is one, or there are more, they are blue, not blues.

The same goes for, say, candy stores. Candy attributively modifies the head noun store, and we only pluralize the head noun.

Likewise, in attorney general, the head is attorney which is modified by general. So when we form the plural, we pluralize the head, not any attributives that modify it.

Again, in passerby, by modifies the head passer, and when pluralizing we pluralize the head.

What throws you off is that the head noun is not always preceded by its modifiers. Usually we add adjectives and the like before a head noun, but sometimes we don't. Even if we add them after the head, we still follow the same rules for the plural: pluralize the head noun, not its modifiers (unlike, say, French!)

Once an allocation becomes so common that we see it as one word (adding a hyphen, or even removing any space in between the constituent parts) a plural may be formed considering the expression one word, hence an -s at the end of attorney-generals is possible.

As for passerby, somehow it seems we create the plural as if we still wrote passer by. I guess passerbies just doesn't look good — and if you want to write passerbys, you are opening a whole new can of worms. Then the next question will be why that plural is different from babies, ladies and derbies!

  • I suspect there is a tendency to think of "attorney general" with "general" as a noun and not a verb, especially as it's a powerful position associated with law enforcement, which has its own lieutenants, captains, etc., and perhaps needs a general. – Code Roadie Apr 16 '15 at 14:47
  • @CodeRoadie: the military general has the same origin, afaik. It's never a verb, by the way(I general, we have generaled??). I'd see it as an adjective. – oerkelens Apr 16 '15 at 14:52
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    Oops, wrote "verb" but meant "adjective." It's early here. :-) – Code Roadie Apr 16 '15 at 15:14
  • There are a lot of different kinds of noun compounds, with different grammar, natch. The Sanskrit grammarians categorized them (rather like the way the Greeks categorized rhetorical figures and poetic meters), and many of the Sanskrit names have found their way into linguistic terminology. One often runs across references to a bahuvrīhi or a tatpuruṣa or a dvandva compound in the literature. – John Lawler Apr 16 '15 at 15:28

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