Data points: plurals in compounds 12/5/10

Headline in (S.F. peninsula) Daily Post on December 4 (p. 1):

Former schools chief dies

(a death notice for Don Phillips, superintendent of the Palo Alto school district from 1997 to 2001).

The point of interest is the N+N compound schools chief, with a plural first element.

Both schools chief (e.g., “New York schools chief Joel Klein”) and school chief (e.g., “D.C. school chief Rhee”) occur in substantial numbers, though with a roughly 2-to-1 ratio in raw ghits for the former over the latter.

Meanwhile, I titled a recent posting to this blog “The slow upward creep of comment spam”, with comment spam, but found myself going back and forth between this version and the version comments spam in messages to friends about the posting.

Adapted from a 12/26/03 posting of mine to ADS-L:

There’s a fair amount of literature on English N+N compounds in  which the first element is plural (abstracts committee).  Today’s New York Times (section D, “Escapes”) has one article just packed with examples: “Finding New Life By Selling the Old” by Anne Glusker, about towns that have become centers for the sale of antiques; it starts on p. D1 and continues on p. D3 (with two sidebar stories).  Although it does cite one shop with antique as the first element in its name — the Antique Depot in Elliccott City, Md. — all the other occurrences of relevant compounds have antiques instead (perhaps to avoid a potential ambiguity involving the adjective  antique ‘old’; compare the similar situation with abstracts as a first element [which I take up below]).

There are plenty of occurrences in the story of antiques store(s) and antiques shop(s), plus:

antiques towns
antiques emporiums
antiques buyers
antiques center
antiques dealers
antiques haven
and even antiques success story.

Remarkably consistent.

I’d find antique possible in all of these, maybe even preferable in some.  And I note that the local phone book has listings for shops called

Antique Arcade
Antique Emporium
Antique Market
Antique Trove

and none for a shop with a N+N compound name with Antiques as the first element.

In 2006, Mark Liberman looked at plurals in compounds in connection with “game animal plurals” like elk and bear; cited the compound activities center;; and reviewed some of the psycholinguistic literature about a well-known asymmetry in English compound formation, according to which the first, modifying, element can be a singular (mouse-eater) or an irregularly inflected plural (mice-eater), but regularly inflected plurals are dispreferred (??rats-eater).

Then in March 2009 I returned to plurals in compounds on ADS-L, following up on Jon Lighter’s noticing examples of jobs market, which he took to be a “hypercorrect pluralization of attributives”. An edited version of my reply:

There’s a considerable literature on English N+N compounds with a plural in the first slot (abstracts committee).  (I exclude here cases where N1 is in fact a singular noun that is plural in form — like measles or linguistics — or an invariably plural noun — like eaves.)

There are all sorts of special cases.  For example, there are cases where N1 is almost invariably plural, probably because the version with the singular would allow a reading with the first word understood as an adjective: abstracts committee rather than abstract committee. Avoidance of ambiguity probably plays a role in some other examples in my collection, though in these cases singular N1 would also be possible and is in fact attested: compounds research (rather than compound research), antiques shop (see discussion above), mixed greens salad (rather than mixed green salad), tops referral service (rather than top referral service — the service refers men to other men who will serve as a top in sexual encounters).

Then there’s a much-discussed class of cases where N1 is an irregular plural.

And then there are compounds where N1 is the name of a sports team. There is considerable variation here between singular and plural N1: Yankee fan or Yankees fan.

There are still other examples that don’t fall into any of these types, but still seem unobjectionable to me.  The New York Times provides weekly e-mail with movie reviews — entitled “Movies Update”.  Also: chicken and sundried tomatoes curry, games hardware, and others.

There’s more, but this should be enough to show that plural N1 is not necessarily incorrect.

And there are many instances of jobs market on the web. Job market is more frequent (roughly 3-to-1 ratio in raw ghits), but jobs market is still well attested, in newspapers, magazines, statistical surveys, and so on. (Note that this is the opposite situation to schools chief.)

A final note: though I’ve followed the literature in talking about N+N compounds like job market as having a singular first element, I’m inclined to say that the first element in such cases is not actually a singular form, but is an unmarked N stem (which of course is phonologically identical to the singular form). This is true whether the first N is mass or count; a count N as modifier is usually interpreted semantically as plural (as in job market).

8 Responses to “Data points: plurals in compounds 12/5/10”

  1. lynneguist Says:

    I’d’ve expected to see ‘schools chief’ in British Eng but surprised to see it in American. I’ve lost all my intuitions…

  2. F. Escobar C. Says:

    I didn’t get the impression you were asking for examples of these compounds, but here’s one that caught my eye recently: “book reviews editor.” Someone wrote it in a comment on Language Log, here.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      I wasn’t actively seeking more examples — I fear there are a lot more out there — but I’m happy to add this one to my files.

      • F. Escobar C. Says:

        A simple and uncalled-for PS: I found another example today in a question answered by the AP editor. Here’s the Q and A, on this webpage (what I’m quoting will disappear as new queries displace it):

        Q. Is it mothers clubs or mothers’ clubs when writing about them generically – not about a specific club – from Half Moon Bay, Calif. on Fri, Dec 10, 2010
        A. Fine to use the first as a descriptive.

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