If I mean to say that many students who were also women smoked cigarettes, but do not wish to use "female students," which of the following would be correct to say:

a) Many woman students smoked cigarettes


b) Many women students smoked cigarettes

I have read all the related posts - they are all helpful but doesn't answer my specific question. As a general rule, the first noun is often singular as in "girl students" and not "girls students" but there are exceptions to this rule, for instance, "women leaders." In fact, I have seen both "woman presidents" and "women presidents" being used frequently.

Could someone, please explain me, any rule there might be for pluralizing compound nouns where both the head noun or attributive noun and the noun it modifies are countable (Please note that I don't mean 'student' here as a collective noun for a body of students).

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    The expression female students is, somehow, preferable to me.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Jan 28, 2019 at 12:19
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    You know what's weird? "Women students" sounds fine to me, as do the dictionary examples of "women voters" and "women athletes". But imagine saying "men students", "men voters" or "men athletes". I just realized this. Hmm, that is odd. Well to me it is.
    – Zebrafish
    Commented Jan 28, 2019 at 12:28
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    Why don't you want to use "female students"? Are you wanting to indicate adult female students specifically?
    – BoldBen
    Commented Jan 28, 2019 at 13:29
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    @BoldBen Yes, precisely. Also because it's academic (social science) writing where women is preferred over female.
    – Ritam
    Commented Jan 28, 2019 at 14:52
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    @Ritam What source are you using that says "women is preferred over female" even in academic writing? I would guess that it was referring to use as a noun, e.g. "women smoking cigarettes", whereas "female" is fine or even preferred as an adjective, e.g. "female students smoking cigarettes." Commented Jan 28, 2019 at 16:23

2 Answers 2


The generally accepted rule is that when one noun that is semantically plural qualifies a following noun, whether singular or plural then it is in the singular according to this pattern: it is compulsory if the plural is formed by adding an -s and optional otherwise.

It does not seem to matter in what way the first is qualifying the second - it could be a question of whether the soldiers ARE women or girls, or of whether the fertilizer is FOR cacti or orchids.

The attached pictures show how we can use singular and plural together where any logic would say we should use one or the other.

Orchid compost Cacti compost

Teeth and gums

This explains why there is little argument on this site about girl/girls, but there is lots of argument about woman/women. Because it is optional, there will always be some who say one or the other is correct, and some situations where one or the other is more common.

I have seen this rule in a big old English grammar but I regret I do not have the reference at present.

I have never seen an explanation, but the one that seems obvious to me is that women soldiers is unambiguous, but girls soldiers could be confused with girl's soldiers Girl's soldiers

  • 3
    Your examples are fundamentally different than what the question is asking about - "orchid compost" means "compost for/of [an] orchid", but you can't say the same about "woman/women students". I'm still trying to figure out which part of the Listerine image I should be looking at.
    – NotThatGuy
    Commented Jan 28, 2019 at 17:04
  • 2
    @notthatguy You should be looking at the bit that says TEETH & GUM even though you have more than one gum as well as more then one tooth. Commented Jan 28, 2019 at 17:09
  • @notthatguy I agree they they are semantically different and that different rules of grammar could apply but it appears they don't. I cannot find any primary or secondary evidence that it matters how one noun is qualifying the other. In fact I think that my evidence about fertilizer and teeth, combined with the original question and the conflicting answers show that the same dichotomy exists in both situations. Commented Jan 28, 2019 at 17:23
  • What is the relevance of the last image? Commented Jan 28, 2019 at 18:33
  • @azorahal These are girl's soldiers which is what people might hear if you said girls soldiers instead of girl soldiers. Commented Jan 28, 2019 at 19:24

The only correct form is 'women students'.

There must be the number correspondence in this compound.

 According to https://www.btb.termiumplus.gc.ca/tcdnstyl-chap?lang=eng&lettr=chapsect2&info0=2.16:

'' Plurals of compound terms

 In forming the plurals of compound terms, pluralize the significant word. If both words are of equal significance, pluralize both. Pluralize the last one if no one word is significant in itself:

men drivers

women writers''.

See some examples from Reverso.context.net:

// The following table indicates the courses preferred by men and women students.

// In recent years, women students have shown a distinct preference for subjects in the arts and in communication sciences and techniques.

// These are intended to prepare women students for careers in the public sector.

There's also an alternative to say 'female students'. Here's an example from Reverso.context.net:

The occupation authorities have expelled and deported the male and female students from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip studying at university in Jerusalem.

  • 5
    It's child workers and not children workers. See Ngrams. So despite the fact that women students is the usual form, the website that you found gives advice that is wrong in general. Commented Jan 28, 2019 at 13:57
  • For another usage, also see Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers: "There are much better ways of enjoying Oxford than fooling round at midnight with the women students." Commented Jan 28, 2019 at 14:11
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    The standard form is 'doubled plurals'.
    – user307254
    Commented Jan 28, 2019 at 14:55
  • 1
    Here's another example from Reverso.context.net: ''Support programmes for girls students with learning difficulties''.
    – user307254
    Commented Jan 28, 2019 at 15:03
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    The website referenced in this answer cites courts-martial and claims it is the more important word that takes the -s. This is indirectly correct. The important word is the noun, for example, court. That is why it takes an -s. The martial is an adjective. It happens to be after the noun as the phrase is of French origin because the Normans introduced much of our legal terminology. As it is a bilingual English-French website they should understand the grammar of cour martiale. Commented Jan 28, 2019 at 16:21

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