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Basically, why is it:

  • "two-item plate"
  • "three-person table"
  • "two-man race"

I was trying to find a rule (or a style guide reference or something) that I could pass on to a friend that explains why the nouns in the hyphenated parts are singular rather than plural.

Near as I can tell, these hyphenated bits are adjectival phrases (or adjective phrases) -- although if they aren't, maybe that's why I can't find a rule. Is there a rule covering this?

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    Attributive nouns in general are very often in the singular (donkey sanctuary), but by no means always (dogs home as in establishment). According to Wiktionary, there are three acceptable variants of nine day wonder / nine days wonder / nine days' wonder. Cambridge Idioms Dictionary adds nine-day wonder, and Your Dictionary nine-days-wonder. So 'rule' seems too strong a term to use hereabouts. However, units are almost always used ... – Edwin Ashworth Sep 30 '16 at 15:26
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    in the singular (a twenty minute walk, Five Mile Island, a 10 metre dog lead) no matter what the number, and 'two-item', 'three-person' etc may be seen as less familiar number + unit strings (hence requiring the hyphens for clarity) and patterned after 'two inch ...', 'ten gallon' etc. – Edwin Ashworth Sep 30 '16 at 15:31
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    That is good enough to be made into an answer. – Mick Sep 30 '16 at 15:40
  • @Mich To my memory, it's already been made into several on ELL. – Edwin Ashworth Oct 16 '16 at 15:54
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Drop both the number and the hyphen and the thing should be self-explanatory. Either way, it’s explained well at Englishclub.com/grammar/nouns-adjective.htm

The rule is simple, although the explanation might not be. As illustrated in your list, the rule is that nouns used as adjectives are always singular. Compound adjectives are merely a class of nouns used as adjectives so they, too, are always singular - except in irrelevant special cases - and normally, if not always, hyphenated. Grammar-monster.com/lessons/hyphens_in_compound_adjectives.htm reminds me that UK readers like me will expect hyphens by default; US readers might be more lenient, expecting hyphens only to eliminate ambiguity. That could be beside the point.

No-one would normally speak of item plates, person tables or even man races, though grammatically those would be no different from name or soup plates, dinner or work tables, car or horse races.

“Two-item” corresponds to “soup”; “three-person” to “dinner” - though “dining” would be more usual; “two-man” to “foot”.

There will never be a “two-soup plate” nor a “three-dinner table” or a “two-foot race”, even as compared to a “three-legged race”.

The first noun is used adjectivally to qualify the second, the subject. The number might change the size but never the intrinsic nature of the subject. A “twenty-item plate” remains in essence a plate for items, even if it must be larger. The same is true of tables and races.

Even plural things such as taxi ranks or car parks, race circuits or dog tracks or passenger ships take singular adjectival nouns

It makes no difference whether the plate is designed to or merely happens to hold two items; whether the table is meant to or only happens to seat three persons; whether the race was a specific challenge between two individuals or happens to involve only two runners worth the name.

  • This has been addressed before, Robbie. And your 'The rule is simple ... [it] is that nouns used as adjectives are always singular.' should be 'Nouns used attributively are usually in the singular form'. There are quite a few exceptions, including systems analyst, sports club, dogs home, travellers cheque, drivers licence, girls school. We've even had an answer showing that childrens books (no apostrophe) is used. And nine days wonder appears in various forms. – Edwin Ashworth Oct 16 '16 at 16:00
  • Uh… thanks Edwin. Sorry I didn't know it had been addressed. You might have cited that before! Neither side of the pond do systems analysts, sports clubs, dogs homes, travellers cheques, drivers licences or girls schools match Geoffrey's examples, or fit his question… Wiktionary, Cambridge, et al, seem to cite recorded, not desirable use. How would you justify nine day, nine days, nine days’, nine-day or nine-days-wonder? I don’t recall it written, but it should be clear the only correct form is nine-days’ wonder. You don't really equate "sports club" with "four-sport club", do you? – Robbie Goodwin Oct 16 '16 at 19:43
  • 'Neither side of the pond do systems analysts, sports clubs, dogs homes, travellers cheques, drivers licences or girls schools match Geoffrey's examples, or fit his question' But I was addressing your statement. / 'It should be clear that ...' is prescriptivism. What is actually used determines what is permissible; extra-grammatical constructions (ie outside traditionally accepted grammar) are quite common. // It can take a fair amount of time and effort to track down duplicates, and quite a few contributors seem content to let others do the work. – Edwin Ashworth Oct 16 '16 at 21:34
  • Uh… thanks and what exactly is the difference between 'Neither side of the pond… is prescriptivism” and “your 'The rule is simple...' should be…” please? How is “What is actually used determines what is permissible” not prescriptive? Geoffrey might tell us whether chance or choice means none of his examples works without its number, and whether he thinks dogs or donkeys, systems, sports or travellers use the same form. However, I’m new here and while I don’t think this is the right arena for discussion, let alone argument please, is there such a place? – Robbie Goodwin Oct 17 '16 at 21:16

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