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Grammar: Against Backward Compound Nouns May 19, 2009

Posted by federalist in Language.

English has acquired a small number of compound nouns that violate rules of grammar by putting an adjective after the noun.  Because these are not used frequently enough to form canonical exceptions they result in errors and confusion when people try to form their plural.  Examples (followed by the correct plural form) include:

  • Attorney general  (attorneys general)
  • Court martial  (courts martial)
  • Notary public  (notaries public)
  • Mother-in-law  (mothers-in-law)

These exceptions also make plural possessives downright unwieldy — e.g., the attorneys general’s conference.

There is no good reason to preserve these exceptions.  Putting the adjective first always makes the compound more wieldy:

  • General attorney / general attorneys / general attorneys’ conference
  • Martial court / martial courts / martial courts’ guidelines
  • Public notary / public notaries / public notaries’ council
  • In-law mother / in-law mothers / in-law mothers’ meeting


1. Julie - January 28, 2014

Help! I just took a test on the plural possesives of compound nounds and I was counted off for the following plural possessive: notaries public’s. I can’t find information anywhere on how this is supposed to be written. The instructor states that the correct answer is: notaries’ public. But if editors in chief’s is the correct plural possessive in a similar circumstance, how is notaries public’s incorrect?

federalist - January 28, 2014

Reverse compound noun possessives are such an obscure problem that there does not appear to be agreement on their grammar. Indeed, careful writers seem to avoid them by stating possession in long form — e.g., “the council of the notaries public.”

If some professor wishes to assert a rule then let him clarify and justify it. An editor would be more likely to tell you to rephrase the sentence than to claim that either possessive form is incorrect.

As you can see in the original post, my approach to using compound nouns formed the correct way, anomalous traditions to the contrary, avoids this problem altogether.

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