or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Monday, April 11, 2005

Compound Fracture

Quick: what's the plural of "son-in-law"?

If you form the plural by the standard English method, tacking an ess onto the end, you get a perfectly sensible, reasonable answer: son-in-laws. There are some, however, who'll tell you it's just flat-out wrong, and their reasoning is also perfectly sensible. "Son" is the noun: "in-law" is an adjective that's tacked onto it to make a compound noun, and we should pluralize the noun itself, making the correct compound "sons-in-law". (I once had a huge argument with someone on this very point--someone who adamantly took the latter point of view.)

What if I said that Shakespeare thought "son-in-laws" was just fine? Not only does he use it, he has a king say it (in King Lear, Act IV, Scene VI).

Okay; now what about the plural of "teaspoonful"? By the standard method, it's "teaspoonfuls". By the strict, literal method, it's "teaspoonsful"; the noun "teaspoon" attached to the adjective "full" to make a compound noun. And yet the spell-checkers I used allowed the first one and flagged the second as erroneous, and "teaspoonfuls" is by far the commoner usage.

There are a few compound nouns which, I think, we can all agree have only one correct pluralization. For example, "attorney general", whether we hyphenate it or not, requires the ess to fall after "attorney", because otherwise it looks as if "general" is a noun instead of an adjective--attorneys who are also (military) generals. "Sergeant-at-arms" also takes the ess after the noun, because the adjectival phrase already has an ess. (These might, of course, change in the future: "attorney generals" is not inconceivable.) But such exceptions are really rather few, and it seems to me that if someone wants to say "aides-de-camp" and another prefers "aide-de-camps", what's the harm?

I am not always so lackadaisical about grammar. In this case, though, I think both sides have a point--which is to say that they're both right, and therefore either method can be used with relative impunity. And how often does that happen in life?


Blogger Elise said...

Now, I am much more lax about grammar than I used to be, realizing that language is a living, changing thing. While I normally love your blog, I think this one is a miss. Teaspoonful is, not knowing how to put this better, fully compounded. That is to say the word is no longer teaspoon-full or teaspoon full. (though really in this specific example I would tend to say 3 teaspoons or 3 full teaspoons, because teaspoon kind of implies full... but spoonfuls, I would definitely use spoonfuls.) All of your other examples, are hyphenated or separate. son-in-law fits this pattern better and my extension should be sons-in-laws.

[Now we can also just say in-laws which is a separate argument, that in-law has become a noun and son is just specifying which type of in-law.]

Now what gets me is cul-de-sac. Maybe it's an American thing, not knowing French, but few people know what a cul or a sac is, just that a cul-de-sac is a rounded dead end filled with suburban houses, and culs-de-sac is hard to say.

So I also see both sides.

Thursday, November 04, 2010 5:52:00 PM  
Blogger pyramus said...

I know what you mean by "fully compounded", but we do have hyphenless compound words in English that have the "-s-" in the middle of the plural: "passersby", for instance. You can generally see the underlying logic to internally pluralized words, but some just got cemented in place in one form and some in the other, while others are in the process of change. Such is language.

Sunday, November 21, 2010 2:13:00 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home