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The Murmuring of Innumerate Nouns

Today’s riddle:

What happens to a noun when it tries to be an adjective?

It doesn’t count.

That’s the shocking result of taking a noun and putting it in front of another noun, so that it takes on the humble role of an adjective.

In its natural habitat, the noun rules. It is the monarch, the head of state of the noun phrase. Behold there the noun in its glory, surrounded by unlimited dependents—determiners, adjectives, adverbs, prepositional phrases, even entire subordinate clauses.

But sometimes one of the dependents is another noun, and for the dependent noun it’s a different story. It assumes its subordinate place right before the head noun, behaving like an adjective but not looking like one.

Take for example the noun phrase “a smart puzzle book.” The procession of modifiers leading to the head noun “book” includes an adjective and a noun.

That “smart” is an adjective is indicated by its ability to pass two tests for adjectives. One is the potential for more and most:

Smart, smarter, smartest

The other test for an adjective is very simple: Just add “very” to the base form:

Very smart

Now try these tests with “puzzle”:

puzzle, puzzler, puzzlest or more puzzle, most puzzle

very puzzle

No, “puzzle” remains firmly a noun, even as it does what the adjective does—it modifies the head noun.

But something happened to this noun when it assumed the adjective role. It lost the ability to count.

That’s why a book of puzzles is a “puzzle book,” not a “puzzles book.”

It’s why a crate of oranges is an “orange crate,” not an “oranges crate.”

It’s why a pack of wolves is a “wolf pack,” not a “wolves pack.”

In their normal state as heads of noun phrases, nouns count (at least most of them). You can count one puzzle, two puzzles; one orange, two oranges; one wolf, two wolves, three wolves, ad infinitum. These same nouns, however, when serving as adjectives, lose count. Making a noun a pre-modifier of another takes away its ability to be counted.

There are a few nouns, to be sure, that can’t ever count, even when they are heads of noun phrases. We call these “mass nouns,” because they refer to something we don’t count: knowledge, advice, luck, furniture, wheat, soup. It’s not just that they lack a plural form, because we don’t say “one advice” or “one furniture” either.

And that’s the transformation that happens to countable nouns when they assume the position of pre-modifying another noun. They morph into mass nouns.

That explains the peculiar phenomenon that nouns generally used in the plural generally become nonplurals when they modify. So we encounter:

Scissors, but scissor blade, scissor lift, scissor kick

Pants, but pant suit, pant hanger, pant size

Panties, but pantyhose

Pajamas, but pajama bottoms, pajama tops

It also accounts for the peculiar phrase “freshman class.” The class consists of more than one freshman, so it would seem natural to say “freshmen class,” and indeed many perfectly civilized people do. But they are still in the minority. A recent Google search, for example, scored 423,000 hits for “freshmen class” but 2,250,000 for “freshman class.”

Similarly, sophomores are in the sophomore class, juniors in the junior class, seniors in the senior class.

And while Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote about “the moan of doves in immemorial elms, and murmuring of innumerable bees,” he’d have to say “dove moans” and “bee murmurs” if an editor asked for a paraphrase. Actually, he’d probably refuse to alter those lyrical lines from “Come Down, O Maid.”

So suggestions are in the suggestion box, answers in the answer key, and questions in the question period. Any questions?

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