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Mind your language

Mind Your Language

Dot wordsworth on plural attributive nouns

29 July 2009

12:00 AM

29 July 2009

12:00 AM

Outside a theatre in Shaftesbury Avenue that offers a dubiously amusing entertainment a poster proclaims: ‘Pant-wettingly funny.’ This is interesting, because what one might have the misfortune to wet is not a pant but pants. The grammar, though, is undoubtedly correct. Nouns used as adjectives generally remain in the singular. This rule makes honest nouns with a singular meaning, but a plural form, shrink into singularity once they are deployed adjectivally: trouser-pocket, not trousers pocket.

It is not as a simple as that, naturally. Take the rather silly term drug czar (or drug tsar). When in 1982 the United States appointed someone in charge of its policy on drugs, the news agency UPI announced him as the new drug czar. (The word czar had been used a decade earlier with reference to the man in charge of energy.) The Oxford English Dictionary records drug tsar in a citation from 1989. But Keith Hellawell, who was Britain’s equivalent from 1998 to 2002, was often referred to as a drugs czar.

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If justification is sought for the plural form in drugs czar, people will sometimes say that it is not any old drug (of the kind made by drug companies) that is under consideration, but drugs, as in ‘sex and drugs and rock-and-roll’. Certainly there is a distinction between, ‘He had to take many drugs’, and, ‘He was out of his mind on drugs’. But the distinction does not apply to drug addict or drug-pusher at the corner of the street. Both drug baron and drugs baron are used.

However there are parallels for drugs czar. A drink party is one where (strong) drink is served; but it is often called a drinks party. When the sun is over the yard-arm it is for some drink time, for others drinks time. One can have a drink table or drinks table. My husband says you can only have a drinks tray, not a drink tray.

The presence of the ‘s’ on a plural attributive noun can encourage the sticking of an apostrophe on the end. Someone wrote in Cosmopolitan magazine in 1996: ‘The focal point of a male house-share is the drinks’ cabinet.’ Surely that is incorrect, or we’d speak of the ash’s tray and the biscuits’ barrel.

In government circles, plural attributive nouns are the thing. In 1989 the Children Act was passed (with another by the same name in 2004). In 1991 it was the Dangerous Dogs Act. On the same principle, there should be a pluralising of the Deceased Wife’s Sister’s Marriage Act of 1907.

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