More Messy Plurals

Creating plurals would be a snap if it were always as simple as adding s or es to a noun. But we all know the English language isn’t that simple.

What’s a person to do with compound nouns? Is it daughter-in-laws or daughters-in-law? Attorneys general or attorney generals? Passerbys or passersby?

The general rule—regardless of whether the compound noun is hyphenated, two words, or closed up—is to make the principal word plural. Another way to think of it is to pluralize the element that is subject to change in number.

Thus daughters-in-law, attorneys general, and passersby are the appropriate plurals.

In the case of two-word compounds, look for the most significant word regardless of placement.

For example, it’s first sergeants, but sergeants major; lieutenant governors, but governors-elect.

The one exception to the rule appears to be court-martial. There’s no agreement over which is the more significant word in that compound noun, so you can’t go wrong with either courts-martial or court-martials.

When there’s no obvious principal word, such as in forget-me-not, form the plural in the standard way—with an s or es: forget-me-nots.

If you haven’t paid attention to these rules before, think about adding them to your collection of to-be-considereds.

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  1. Great information, thank you for the refresher!
    One thought regarding pluralization of “court-martial”- wouldn’t it depend on the usage of the term? When referring to the actual noun, which is the proper use of the word would require “courts-martial” as the plural form, whereas if used as a verb to describe the process, then “court-martials” would be used?

    1. From what I researched, you could use either. I didn’t find anything specific to usage on that. But it makes sense to go with what seems the most applicable and logical for the context, right?

      1. The references I found considered both the noun and verb forms and I thought it might interest you. I’m sorry if the information wasn’t welcome.
        From Collins, a respected dictionary source:
        court martial


        Word forms: plural court martials, courts martial
        a military court that tries persons subject to military law

        Word forms: court-martial, -tials, -tialling, -tialled
        , (US) -tials, -tialing, -tialed
        (transitive) to try (a person) by court martial

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