• I wouldn't touch that idea with a ten-foot pole.
  • He's a tool maker.
  • In Germany, Catholics and Lutherans pay a church tax.
  • The zebra stripes indicate a pedestrian crossing.
  • He is a resident of an Indian reservation.
  • He is from the Klingon homeworld.

In English one does not refer to a "ten-feet pole" or a "tools maker" or a "churches tax" or a "pedestrians crossing" or an "Indians reservation" or the "Klingons homeworld", despite the clear-cut non-singularity in each instance. But in corresponding locutions in German, the plural form is always used.

  • Is there a name for this distinction or for either of the two modes of expression?
  • Is there an account of this in popular, or at least relatively non-technical, published expository sources?
  • Is this an instance of something more general that linguists have a concept for?
  • What can be said about this that is of interest besides the brute observation that the phenomenon exists?
  • 2
    Great question. Couple of comments: First, the generalisation that plural forms aren't allowed compound-internally in Eng. isn't so clear-cut. Consider: (a) rat-infested, (a') rats-infested, (b) mouse-infested, (b') mice-infested. Most speakers find (b') to be an awful lot better than (a') (consider also lice brush, teeth marks, etc.). The generalisation appears to be that regular plurals are dispreferred. Second thing: Can you provide some examples from German? I think you're probably right, but i want to be clear we aren't confusing fugen-s for a plural marker.
    – P Elliott
    Oct 15, 2013 at 23:36
  • @PElliott "Kirchensteuer" (church tax), "Kinderlied" (song for children). I haven't mentally cataloged a list of examples in German. I'll post more as I come across them. "Ten-foot pole" certainly involves a "strong" noun, so if that counts as an irregular plural, then maybe that's an exception to the rule you're proposing. Oct 16, 2013 at 2:54
  • 1
    A Yankees fan, an antiques shop, the situation is not so clear-cut in English either.
    – dainichi
    Oct 16, 2013 at 8:18
  • There's a post on Arnold Zwicky's blog where he discusses numerous counter-examples to the putative generalisation for English. Might be of interest to you: arnoldzwicky.org/2010/12/05/…
    – P Elliott
    Oct 16, 2013 at 13:12
  • I guess we've discussed whether "pedestrian" is a noun or an adjective in other comments. I also see "Indian" and "Klingon" as adjectives, as I would say "English reservation" and "English homeworld", not "England reservation" or "England homeworld".
    – dainichi
    Oct 17, 2013 at 23:14

1 Answer 1


All of your examples involve compounds (even though the two parts of the compound are in most cases written as separate words). English has inherited from Indo-European the principle that the first part of a compound (Vorderglied) is as a rule not inflected for number or case.

Some of your (implied) German examples are of the same sort: Zebra(streifen), Indianer(reservation) have an uninflected Vorderglied. Others have a Vorderglied in the genitive singular: Kirchen(steuer) follows the old weak declension of Kirche (Kirchen in all cases except nom. sing.), a type also well attested in ancient IE languages.

  • Can you give examples from non-Indo-European languages in which the Vorderglied is a regular plural form? I'm not prima facie convinced that this is just a contingent fact about IE.
    – P Elliott
    Oct 15, 2013 at 23:49
  • I am not sure that any other language families have IE-type compounds.
    – fdb
    Oct 16, 2013 at 0:20
  • Actually, I didn't even have in mind "zebra stripes" as one of my examples. "Pedestrian crossing" is what I had in mind. Oct 16, 2013 at 3:02
  • @MichaelHardy, in "pedestrian crossing", I interpret "pedestrian" as an adjective.
    – dainichi
    Oct 16, 2013 at 7:52
  • 1
    @dainichi : I don't think it makes sense to interpret "pedestrian" as an adjective in that case. It is not the crossing that is pedestrian, but the people, that are pedestrians. Oct 16, 2013 at 19:09

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