Nouns as modifiers



Is there any logical reason why we should say "sports magazine" and not "sport magazine"? There seems to be no semantic reason for doing so. I can cope with the use of scientific terminology (i.e., "anaesthetic/anaesthetics" as adjectives), but am lacking any feasible explanation in this case.

Helen Tooke


In Helen’s example, the noun "magazine" is described by another noun, "sports." Traditionally, we have learned to put this noun modifier in an "adjective" form, which would make it singular, and therefore, logically, "sport magazine." Yet "sport magazine" is not the form in frequent current use. Helen notes exceptions in terms of scientific phrases, but exceptions come from all areas, not only science. The way we form this kind of noun compound (using one noun as a modifier for another) is not consistent and could be described as "in transition."

Not very long ago, there was almost a rule that a noun, when used as an adjective, appears in its singular form, as adjectives do, in such examples as “apple tree,” “vegetable soup,” and “toy factories.” We had, and have: “shoe departments”, “school boards,” and “stock markets.” These days we know “parts departments,” “schools superintendents,” and “options markets.” The Sunday New York Times lists both “antique show” and “antiques show,” on the same page. What’s going on?

Quirk says that "the plural attributive construction is on the increase…" (Quirk et al., A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, Longman, 1985, pp. 1333–1334.) (Quirk’s terminology of "attributive noun" is my "noun modifier.")

Quirk lists various situations in which the noun modifier tends to be in the plural, including situations when:


the singular form might lead to ambiguity


an Arts degree (a degree in the humanities)
as opposed to
an art degree (a degree in fine art)


there is no singular form of a noun (in pluralia tantum)


a customs officer


there is a need to denote variety (Quirk says there is a tendency for more generic terms to be plural and more specific terms to be singular, but this distinction is not clear to me)


a soft drinks manufacturer [but] a car manufacturer


a topical issue comes forth, often in newspaper stories. Quirk cites examples of Watergate reporting from newspapers:


the tapes issue
the tapes compromise
the Watergate tapes affair
the White House tapes mystery
and other examples, including jobs cut.

I have noticed recent expressions illustrating the plural form of the modifying noun, such as:

  • the Holiday Books issue of The New York Times, in December 2000
  • Signs at Chevron gas stations, where they now sell liquor: liquors store
  • My university has a benefits office
  • I was told to call the appointments clerk

These examples are noteworthy for going against the "rule" of noun modifiers in the singular form.

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