I wonder whether there are rules or guidelines regarding plural nouns in nominal compounds. For example a compound university students list. If there are many lists and many universities is it grammatically correct to say universities students lists? Must all elements be in the plural form or can some be left in singular, even though the meaning is plural? I've seen an expression universities student lists; is it correct?


3 Answers 3


There is a cross-linguistic principle that words incorporated into compounds tend to lose any inflections (I remember an article in Language in the 80's - probably, from the index, one of the articles in Vol 62 No 1, but I haven't a copy to hand).

So in English, the norm is that nouns incorporated into compounds do not take a plural ending. Where they do, this is usually because the singular form would be ambiguous, often because there is a homophonous adjective. An example I recall is "solid modelling" - the company I worked for in the 80's used this phrase (in the UK, hence the spelling of "modelling"), but other vendors preferred "solids modeling", presumably because they thought that "solid modelling" might be a solid kind of modelling, as opposed to the modelling of solids.

  • I'm sure you're right as regards English, and I take it on faith that the principle applies to other languages. Your "solids" modelling seems like a good example of an "edge case", but I must admit initially I found the point somewhat obscured by the US/UK spelling difference. I think teaspoonfuls is a related application of the same principle. Nov 17, 2011 at 18:17
  • @FumbleFingers, I wouldn't count on it in other languages. For example, in Russian and Hebrew, which I speak fluently, this rule has no sense at all.
    – FireAphis
    Nov 20, 2011 at 11:31
  • @FireAphis: It's not my claim, after all, but Colin's point is valid (and peripherally relevant) even if only a minority of other languages have this characteristic. The proposition that inflections tend to be discarded within compound forms still seems at least credible to me, nothwithstanding specific examples to the contrary. Nov 20, 2011 at 13:45
  • @FumbleFingers, Yes, I agree with you. Thinking of it, neither Russian nor Hebrew tend to employ such compounds, so it is almost impossible to apply the rule. Both languages have different constructs for similar situations.
    – FireAphis
    Nov 20, 2011 at 14:11
  • @FireAphis: yes, the cross-linguistic observation was on incorporation, which implies compounds. What I'm assuming is that these noun phrases in English are in some sense compound words rather than phrases (we don't write them as single words, but there is little functional difference between them and German compound nouns, which are written as single words). In languages which don't compound in this way, the phenomenon won't be evident. (There's a risk of circularity here - languages which retain nominal morphology ipso facto don't have this kind of compound).
    – Colin Fine
    Nov 21, 2011 at 10:35

As a general rule of thumb, you want to have just one plural word in such a phrase. The other nouns in the phrase act as modifiers to the pluralized noun and are not, therefore, pluralized. So "university student lists" would indicate a number of lists made up of students at universities. The normal inference would be that there were multiple universities, and it would take some modification to restrict it to lists of students at a single university, or that each list was composed of students at a single university. "A university's student lists", or "each university's student lists", would supply those restrictions.


The expression "Universities' student lists" would correctly mean the student lists of a number of universities, but you would want the apostrophe in there.

I think it is easier to read this with 'student' rather than 'students' as it removes possible ambiguity, creating a noun from the phrase 'student lists.'

  • I think that is exactly what interests me: why does 'student' sound better than 'students'? Which mechanism is involved here? Is there a generalization of this "feeling"?
    – FireAphis
    Nov 17, 2011 at 12:02
  • It stems from the fact that a 'student list' is non-ambiguous. It must be a list of students, so it doesn't need an s appended. In fact appending an s could confuse those who might read it as 'student's list'
    – Rory Alsop
    Nov 17, 2011 at 12:05
  • Why is 'student lists' correct at all? There are many students and many lists; why is it still correct to use student in singular?
    – FireAphis
    Nov 17, 2011 at 13:48
  • Should I write it as a new and separate question?
    – FireAphis
    Nov 17, 2011 at 13:48
  • I reckon a separate question could be useful, but see my comment from 2 hours ago as to why.
    – Rory Alsop
    Nov 17, 2011 at 15:06

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