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If I want to say:

"development of special weapons was the first point in Hitler's program..."

I will say this (a better form):

"special weapon development was..."

OK...

is it

"special weapon development"

or

"special weapons development" (note the plural...)

What's the grammar rule in order to understand how to use this very used form?

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1 Answer 1

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As a rule, the singular form is used for the first part of a compound noun. So, when in doubt, use the singular. There are three kinds of exceptions:

  1. If the singular would be ambiguous, as in "a singles bar": a single bar means just one bar.
  2. If the plural used to be a singular possessive, which sounds the same: I think "ladies man" (a man who likes flirting with women etc.) comes from the possessive "lady's man", which is also used. It might also be partly due to category 1, since a "lady man" is now generally an effeminate man.
  3. Okay I lied. This is not really a category. There just are exceptions. Often (but not always) the plural is used because a certain word is usually heard in plural in a certain sense, such as "trades union" and "weapons development". I also believe "clothes rack" is fairly acceptable nowadays. It seems the trend is towards using the plural more than in the past, which some traditionalists abhor.
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  • OK... well, I knew that I had to use singular but I know that some compound used plural too, that's why I asked... well it seems that in most case I must pay attention on how it sounds... ahahah
    – Andry
    Commented Jan 4, 2011 at 8:02
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    Since clothes doesn't have a singular (a cloth rack doesn't mean the same thing at all), clothes rack is inevitable, like jeans jacket. (Of course, there are other pluralia tantum you make singular for compound nouns, like scissor kick and bagpipe music.) Commented Jul 23, 2018 at 14:57
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    @Peter Clothes doesn't have a plural either. And it's not a plural. It's non-count (yes, in plural form and taking plural agreement). Commented May 25, 2020 at 12:00
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    @Cerberus The test for countness is 'does the usage accept a numeral?' Here, *My 7 / 12.5 / 1 / dozen clothes are skimpy. It's a plural-form plural-agreement-afforded non-count noun. Commented May 25, 2020 at 14:39
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    @EdwinAshworth: Plurality ≠ countability. Commented May 25, 2020 at 20:48

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