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As "coming out of the closet" has become ubiquitous in recent years, what would the plural be? Would it follow the rule of "goings-on" or be a hyphenated "coming-outs" or something else entirely?

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    No idiomatic answer has been established, to my knowledge. You either wing it or tiptoe around it.
    – Hot Licks
    Aug 7 '15 at 20:56
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    There is no 'rule of "goings-on" '. "Sending offs" (sometimes hyphenated) is more common than "sendings off" on Google, and different dictionaries differ in their recommendations. // More recent usages tend to be more tolerant of more regular patterning, eg computer mouses. Aug 7 '15 at 21:50
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    "All the recent comings‐out" would sound reasonable to me, unlike "coming‐outs", "outcomings" etc. But I agree with Hot Licks, there is nothing really established. If you're looking for a safe option, it's to stick to the singular ("all the recent coming out", hyphenated or not) or talk around it ("instances of coming out").
    – hemflit
    Aug 7 '15 at 22:03
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    @EdwinAshworth Surely computer mouses is in an entirely different category, just like car windows. Why would the plural be anything else? But I think sendings-off is correct. If more people use sending-offs it is because a majority of people are getting it wrong. Comings-out is the way to go, almost certainly, in my book. Our educational system is now plagued by this idea that we must never make it too hard for children.
    – WS2
    Aug 8 '15 at 6:48
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    @WS2 Are you saying that all the Americans who have now adopted Webster's recommendations on spellings are wrong? They now outnumber UK anglophones. Language changes. Usage trumps shibboleth adherence. 'Mouses' is a novel plural for 'mouse'; this does not make it wrong. And take a look at these Google Ngrams for cul-de-sacs and culs-de-sac. Aug 8 '15 at 15:50
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Often coming out is a verb form rather than a noun

We bit the bullet and are coming out to our parents today!

No plural necessary.

Often it is an adjectival form

We wanted a coming out party to share our happiness with the world.

No plural necessary.

Maybe when the gerund stands by itself, it should be considered an uncountable noun, like beauty or freedom

After the Supreme Court decision, hundreds of couples celebrated their coming out in style.

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    That's it. So simple. +1.
    – Centaurus
    Aug 7 '15 at 23:32
  • But what's being discussed is not one event involving multiple people, but multiple events over months or years.
    – Hot Licks
    Aug 8 '15 at 12:30
  • @HotLicks There were a host of pundits at the debate. Their intelligence [not collective, each had some] was impressive. Coming out is rarely a discrete, definitive activity. It is more often a process that has numerous aspects and occasions. Like truth-telling or honesty.That's why I think uncountable is appropriate.
    – bib
    Aug 8 '15 at 13:29
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    The answer is a way around the problem, not an answer to the question. Aug 8 '15 at 19:38
  • What "debate"? The OP mentioned no debate.
    – Hot Licks
    Aug 8 '15 at 21:56
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Hot Licks already posted the answer as a comment, but comments can be expunged, so here it is as an answer:

No idiomatic answer has been established You either wing it or tiptoe around it.

As RegDwigнt♦ posted in yet a different comment, there are many examples in English where the entire hyphenated phrase is treated as a single unit for pluralization:

Yes, it's passers-by and not passer-bys. But it's also break-ups not breaks-up, blow-outs not blows-out, strike-outs not strikes-out, merry-go-rounds not merry-gos-round, etc. etc. (people in chat list dozens more). And yeah, coming-outs and not comings-out.

Google n-Grams shows that comings-out has been in relatively widespread use for much longer than coming-outs: enter image description here

Note that the graph shows a dramatic increase in the use of coming-outs in the last decade of data. If you click through to the results, you'll see that these are, indeed, true positives, where writers are using the phrase to refer to multiple instances of a closeted person revealing their secret (sexuality is the typical secret). Given that in much of the English-speaking world, gay people have had more coming(s)-out(s) recently, it's normal to see a spike in the usage of the phrase, but note that the overall distribution of the usage is almost evenly split between the two camps.

If there is a rule which determines where the pluralization is placed, it doesn't seem to be based on the "importance" of the component word, but rather on the component words' functions and whether or not the whole hyphenated phrase is taken as a single entity or not. I think there is more to this but haven't the time to look into it further.

TL,DR: Use comings-out if you want to be fussy. Use coming-outs if you want to be modern or if you feel strongly that the entire thing is one single unit word spelled with the hyphen letter.

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  • Passer-by is different from break-up: the former is a noun with an attribute, which can and does function as a noun group directly. Break-up is from a verbal phrase, as in to break up. Hence the phrase is "quoted", as it were, when it is converted into a noun; and in this case quotation means that it cannot be changed internally after conversion. And it wouldn't make sense to do so, for break in to break up was never a noun before the conversion, and verbs don't get -s when they are pluralised. Aug 13 '15 at 15:06
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The correct plural is comings-out. Cf. passers-by, runners-up.

Grammarphobia.com gives the following rule: “• If the word is split into parts, with or without hyphens, put the plural ending on the root or most important part:

mothers-in-law - courts-martial - ladies-in-waiting - hangers-on - crêpes suzette - rear admirals - men-of-war - flagships - tank battalions - Johnnies-come-lately (or alternatively Johnny-come-latelies)

“• Watch out for general when it’s part of a compound word. In a military title, general is usually the important part, so it gets the s. In a civilian title, general isn’t the root, so it doesn’t get the s:

Two attorneys general went dancing with two major generals. Those consuls general are retired brigadier generals.”

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    Where's your evidence this is correct? Aug 7 '15 at 22:46
  • '• If the word is split into parts, with or without hyphens, put the plural ending on the root or most important part'. As in Johnny-come-latelies? A serious flaw in this answer is that the quotation isn't attributed. Aug 8 '15 at 15:46
  • @EdwinAshworth According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary the plural can be either your version or Johnnies-come-lately. A serious flaw in your comment is that it's incomplete? Aug 8 '15 at 18:47
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    << The correct plural is comings-out. Cf. passers-by, runners-up. Grammarphobia.com gives the following rule: “• If the word is split into parts, with or without hyphens, put the plural ending on the root or most important part >> is prescriptive. I gave a counterexample (two with sending offs, above) to show that it was over-prescriptive. I did not say you had to use 'Johnny-come-latelies' ... Aug 8 '15 at 21:05
  • (though Google Ngrams would seem to indicate clearly that this is the preferred version). Aug 8 '15 at 21:06

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