July 9, 2009
Language Tips: Difficult plurals & Hyphens
Tip 1: Difficult plurals
A reader writes:
Have you talked about plurals of words like attorney general, mother-in-law, handful?
Ah, indeed, some plurals can be troublesome. Let’s start with the ones suggested by the reader and move on from there.
Attorney general and mother-in-law are pretty easy to deal with and follow the same rule:
When a compound word is hyphenated or separated by spaces, an ‘s’ is added to the main word or the element that is actually being made plural, thus:
The correct form is ‘attorneys general’ and ‘mothers- in-law’ since we are referring to more than one attorney and more than one mother.
poet laureate poets laureate
bill of fare bills of fare
If you can’t identify the main word or the thing being made plural, the ‘s’ is added to the end.
Handful is another matter.
Handful is considered a compound word also (although it is structured somewhat differently than most compound words– ‘ful’ not being a word in its own right). The rule for compound words ending in ful is to add an ‘s’ to the end of the word. Thus, handful becomes handfuls NOT handsful.
You might have an urge to put the ‘s’ in the middle and make the plurals spoonsful, armsful and cupsful. Stay strong. Don’t give in.
Other troublesome plurals are those that are the exception to the rules. For example, most nouns ending in ‘o’ are made plurals by adding ‘es.’
But it’s easy to get stung by the exceptions:
Most words ending in ‘f’ or ‘fe’ are made plural by deleting the ‘f’ or ‘fe’ and adding ‘ves.’
But beware the exceptions, there are no handkerchieves!
I think this is enough of problem plurals for today. There is another issue I want to get to.
Tip 2: Hyphens
I wrote about this a while ago, but in retrospect, I was way too mild. I made recommendations and suggestions, very namby-pamby stuff. No longer. This time, I’m going to be strong. I am going to be steadfast. I am going to stand up for the hyphen. (Heaven knows, it can use the support!) Ergo, this is my edict.
When a compound word is an adjective and comes before the noun it is modifying, it MUST be hyphenated. When it comes after the noun it is modifying, there should be no hyphen.
decision-making process BUT our plan for decision making
guideline-based recommendations BUT protocol which is guideline based
health-related reporting BUT article that is health related
follow-up phone calls BUT a plan to follow up
Use hyphens when writing compound numbers and adjective phrases with numbers and when writing fractions.
the four-year-old child
one-third the length
Use hyphens when there could be confusion in understanding.
Fast moving van
fast-moving van OR fast moving-van
He is going to resign his position. OR He is going to re-sign the petition.
He is not going to recover. OR He is re-covering the chair.
There are some other rules for when to use hyphens, but these are the main ones. SO DON’T FORGET THEM! If I can get people to use hyphens and spell ‘principal investigator’ properly, I’ll be a very happy person.