I was reading Computers, Communications, and Information A User's Introduction (Seventh Edition) by Sarah E. Hutchinson and Stacey C. Sawyer.

The authors consistently used such terms as communications hardware and applications software. I thought we should use communication hardware and application software instead. Why did the authors use nouns of plural form this way?

EDIT: As far as I can remember from English grammar courses, a noun should typically be modified by a single noun preceding it. Rarely have I seen such usages as in the book.

  • Why would you 'think' singular should be used? In the context, the singular and the plural have different connotations -- they do not mean the same. – Kris May 14 '12 at 19:58
  • @Kris I think an explanation of why that is would answer the OP. – user14070 May 14 '12 at 20:15
  • @Joshua Drake That being technical in nature, would be off-topic on ELU. Search for "Electronic Engineer or Electronics Engineer" on Google :-) – Kris May 14 '12 at 20:21
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    The singular and plural have the same meaning here. In this case, they're both grammatical, it's just a matter of style. (Google Ngram) – Peter Shor May 14 '12 at 20:50
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    Communications and applications are general names of fields here, so it's not a plural noun in the same way as the incorrect *horses race would be. – Peter Shor May 17 '12 at 20:13

I do believe that in both phrases you mention are grammatical and colloquially interchangeable.

However, I also think that there is actually a difference in the meaning. Peter Shor suggests this in his comment also. "Communications" and "Applications" refer to fields, or topic areas. So while "communication software" means something like "software that allows people to communicate with each other", "communications software" might mean something more like "software used in or made for the communications field". It's actually useful to use the plural here to disambiguate these two meanings. Notice that "Communications" is also plural in the title of the book - it's the name of a field or topic area.

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  • Good point. The terms mean slightly different things, although in this case I don't think there's any real difference in the actual use of communication hardware and communications hardware, since here the two different meanings both cover the same set of hardware. – Peter Shor May 19 '12 at 15:00

Why did the authors use nouns of plural form this way?

The real answer can only be found by asking them or their editor...

As someone who works in that domain I don't make any real difference between the plural or singular adjective in these cases; I prefer the singular as you do.

A couple of things to give some perspective:

  1. Technical communications are hardly a source of grammatical correctness. If there is a real distinction between plural or singular in the cases you cited, it's not used with consistency in the field (although as you point out, the authors are consistent in their book).
  2. Google (with quotes) "communications hardware" and you'll find 269,000 hits.
  3. Google (with quotes) "communication hardware" and you'll find 276,000 hits.
  4. Google (with quotes) "applications software" and you'll find 6,440,000 hits.
  5. Google (with quotes) "application software" and you'll find 13,500,000 hits.
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I believe that 'communication software' is used when you are talking about specific software.

"Why won't my phone connect to my laptop anymore" ~ "It has a fault in the communication software."

'Communications software' is when you are talking in a more general or generic way about the software.

"We need to update our communications software."

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Generally, your observation holds true: in compounds, nouns that are not the 'main' noun ("non-head nouns" as they would be formally termed in some frameworks) lose their inflection.

So for example, one would say:

"printer drivers" / "*printers drivers"

"restaurant meals" / "*restaurants meals"

"child laborers" / "*children laborers"


However, there are a few exceptions, typically when the plural that is embedded in the compound is in someway "iconic". This can often happen for the names of fields that are per se plural, e.g. "telecommunications" or for the occasional irregular plural:

"telecommunication(s) services"

"mathematics professors" / "*mathematic professors"

"women MPs" / "?woman MPs"

In at least some of these cases, you will find both forms. For example, you'll find both "telecommunication service(s)" and "telecommunications service(s)". If you like, there's a conflict between the usual pattern of losing the inflection and the "iconicity" of the particular plural "telecommunications", and different speakers resolve this conflict in one way or the other.

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  • mathematic is not a noun. – Peter Shor May 18 '12 at 22:50
  • Peter - that doesn't necessarily matter to the argument. There are other nouns that are normally plural that become singular in compounds, e.g. "trousers" > "trouser press"; "scissors" > "scissor sharpener" etc. – Neil Coffey May 18 '12 at 23:22
  • But you say "my trousers are" and "my scissors are", but "my mathematics is", so "trouser" and "scissor" are the non-existent singulars of plural nouns, but there's not even that small justification for "mathematic". – Peter Shor May 19 '12 at 15:24
  • OK I take your point that its a slightly different case maybe (for a more ambiguous case consider "economics" which can take singular or plural verb). I dont't think this specific example is crucial to my overall point, though- ignore it if you don't like it. – Neil Coffey May 20 '12 at 15:58

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