July 9, 2009

Language Tips: Difficult plurals & Hyphens

Posted in hyphen, hyphen/compound words, plurals at 7:00 am by dlseltzer

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.

Other examples:

poet laureate      poets laureate

bill of fare            bills of fare

editor-in-chief  editors-in-chief

If you can’t identify the main word or the thing being made plural, the ‘s’ is added to the end.


forget-me-not           forget-me-nots

grown-up                    grown-ups

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.


spoonful            spoonfuls

armful                armfuls

cupful                cupfuls

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.’

potato            potatoes

echo                echoes

But it’s easy to get stung by the exceptions:

solo              solos

piano           pianos

photo          photos

Most words ending in ‘f’ or ‘fe’ are made plural by deleting the ‘f’ or ‘fe’ and adding ‘ves.’

wife             wives

knife            knives

wolf             wolves

shelf            shelves

thief            thieves

But beware the exceptions, there are no handkerchieves!

handkerchief            handkerchiefs

roof                              roofs

chief                            chiefs

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.

For example:

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

Got that?

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.



  1. Judy Lacey said,

    Is “peace of mind” ever hyphenated?

    • dlseltzer said,

      I think not. I couldn’t find any examples of the phrase hyphenated.

  2. Sana Khatri said,

    Thank you nice article Your Stuff Work “peace of mind” ever hyphenated?

  3. Heidi Siebels said,

    OK, how about “fourth and fifth-generation drugs”? Should there be a hyphen after “fourth”?

    • dlseltzer said,

      The quick answer is yes. It ensures that the structure is parallel.

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