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Plural of Agent Provocateur
August 20, 2014 1:12 PM   Subscribe

What is the plural form of "agent provocateur" and what other compound words use a similar pluralization scheme in English? At first I thought it followed the pattern of attorneys general or courts-martial but now I'm not so sure.
posted by Jeff Howard to Writing & Language (29 answers total)
 
In french it would be "des agents provocateurs", and merriam-webster seems to agree.
posted by Mons Veneris at 1:14 PM on August 20 [4 favorites]


Agents provocateurs. It's French, it follows the French rules of grammar.

I don't know about similar contructions in English, but maybe a native speaker can help you there.
posted by Too-Ticky at 1:14 PM on August 20 [2 favorites]


Agents provocateur.
posted by Thing at 1:14 PM on August 20 [1 favorite]


According to Merriam Webster, it's agents provocateurs.
posted by shoesietart at 1:16 PM on August 20 [1 favorite]


Following the French, it would be "agents provocateurs." Using some quick Google descriptivism, "agents provocateurs" gets 171,000 hits while "agents provocateur" gets 31,400 hits.
posted by mr_roboto at 1:16 PM on August 20


Oops, Mons beat me to it.
posted by shoesietart at 1:16 PM on August 20


Got it. Now I'm looking for other examples that follow this pattern. Also, could a French speaker elaborate on what's going on here? Are adjectives/adverbs routinely pluralized in French? Or is the rule that both parts of a compound word get pluralized regardless of the part of speech?
posted by Jeff Howard at 1:24 PM on August 20


Adjectival agreement in French includes gender and number. Agent is a singular masculine noun, agents is a plural masculine noun. The singular masculine form of the adjective is provocateur; the plural masculine form is provocateurs. If you had a female agente, she'd be an agente provocatrice. Though you probably wouldn't see this last one used in English unless someone was trying to be clever.
posted by mr_roboto at 1:29 PM on August 20 [4 favorites]


Adjectives in French (and other romance languages) reflect the gender and number of their noun. So, little boy is petit garçon, little girl is petite fille; little boys is petits garçons, little girls is petites filles.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 1:31 PM on August 20 [1 favorite]


Pretty much everything follows that pattern in French. Examples: "les jeunes Américains" and "les livres rouges".
posted by pipeski at 1:31 PM on August 20


As for similar constructions, bel esprit would be pluralized beaux esprits, bon mot would be bons mots, carte blanche would be cartes blanches, and you can finish going through the wikipedia page entitled "List of French expressions in English" yourself....
posted by mr_roboto at 1:32 PM on August 20 [1 favorite]


Or--ripped from the headlines--cordons sanitaires w/r/t the protocols to limit the spread of the Ebola virus.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 1:34 PM on August 20


Adjectives follow the number/gender of nouns. Un chat noir is one black cat (cat is masculine, le chat). Deux chats noirs are two black cats. Une chaise noire is one black chair (chair takes the feminine, so the adjective changes to the feminine). Deux chaises noires is two black chairs (adding the plural). One can be masculine, un, or feminine, une. All other numbers are just one gender: deux, trois, quatre, etc.

I last took French in grade 10 but I think this is correct. See here for a much better explanation.
posted by angiep at 1:37 PM on August 20


An interesting deviation (though not a grammatical exception, really, since it's due to the structure of the prepositional phrase): the plural of coup d'état is coups d'état.
posted by mr_roboto at 1:37 PM on August 20


Now I'm looking for other examples that follow this pattern.

beaux gestes
bons mots
faits accomplis
idées fixes
tableaux vivants

Are adjectives/adverbs routinely pluralized in French?

Yes, adjectives are changed to agree with the gender of the noun it modifies, as well as to agree with whether the noun is singular or plural, which means there can be up to four forms (singular masculine, singular feminine, plural masculine, plural feminine).
posted by scody at 1:37 PM on August 20


Chaises longues
posted by xueexueg at 1:38 PM on August 20


Interesting. Avant-garde (pl. avant-gardes) looks to be another deviation. That Wikipedia entry is very helpful. Thanks everyone!
posted by Jeff Howard at 1:40 PM on August 20


the plural of coup d'état is coups d'état.

Similarly: aides-de-camp, cartes de visite, etc.
posted by scody at 1:41 PM on August 20 [1 favorite]


Note that "avant" is a preposition, so the rule is different there.
posted by jph at 1:48 PM on August 20 [6 favorites]


What makes it more fun is that neither 's' in agents provocateurs is pronounced in French. But it would probably have an article (les agents provocateurs) where you would hear the 's' because of the liaison.
posted by graymouser at 2:06 PM on August 20


Avant-garde is a compound adjective. A French phrase like l'artiste avant-garde would be pluralized les artistes avant-gardes.
posted by ottereroticist at 2:16 PM on August 20 [1 favorite]


what other compound words use a similar pluralization scheme in English

Attorney General -> Attorneys General and Surgeon General -> Surgeons General are the first that come to mind. Compound phrases that use "at large" would follow the same seems-wrong-to-anglophones pattern: member-at-large -> members-at-large.
posted by Lexica at 2:21 PM on August 20 [1 favorite]


Lexica: "Attorney General -> Attorneys General and Surgeon General -> Surgeons General are the first that come to mind."

William Safire was quite the stickler about these pluralizations, leading to one of my favorite Onion articles: William Safire Orders Two Whoppers Junior. Also, in that article, they allude to the more subtle example of "passerby" -> "passersby".
posted by mhum at 3:00 PM on August 20 [3 favorites]


Just to be clear - adverbs are always invariable (with the complicated exception of "tout").

Adjectives in French, even compound ones, always agree in number and gender (as everyone here has said) except for:

- orange and marron and another long list of adjectives deriving from natural objects
- compound color adjectives (both are invariable. Ex: des pommes rouge foncé; une chaise vert caca d'oie)
- a compound adjective in which the first part ends in o or i, only the second adjective agrees (ex: des mots anglo-saxons)
- a compound adjective in which the first word is invariable (it is an adverb, a verb, or a preposition - ex: une chaise avant-garde; des haricots extra fins, une pince-sans-rire)
- a compound adjective in which the first adjective functions as an adverb (this is hard to explain if you don't speak French, but ex: des cadres haut-placés (= des cadres hautement placés))
- a compound made of a noun and an adjective (both are invariable -ex - des jeunes bon chic bon genre)

I'm sure there are more exceptions but this should get you through a Bernard Pivot dictée with relatively few errors!

In the case that many have cited (des cartes de visite), unlike in English, "de visite" is not considered an adjective therefore does not follow any agreement rules.

des lunettes de soleil
des salles de bain
des cartes de visite
des pommes de terre
posted by microcarpetus at 5:08 PM on August 20 [4 favorites]


Attorney General -> Attorneys General and Surgeon General -> Surgeons General are the first that come to mind.

Courts Martial.

I'm waiting for an opportunity to pluralise "faux pas" as "fauxes pas" in front of someone who knows how wrong that is, but the day hasn't come yet.
posted by russm at 5:26 PM on August 20 [1 favorite]


femmes fatales is another french one that's used in english
posted by neat graffitist at 5:42 PM on August 20 [1 favorite]


It's a little know fact that you don't need to know any French (or any other language) in order to speak or write English. No one calls up the local pizza restaurant and says, "I would like to order three pizze, please" or orders "two gyroi" at a Greek restaurant.

Feel free to write "agents provocateur" just as you would write "attorneys general" because English adjectives tend not to agree with the nouns they modify. English has no regulating body like L'Académie française, so no one can authoritatively claim you are "wrong". Not that a language regulating body can do much on that front, though. The Académie can't make francophones say "le coussin gonflable de sécurité" instead of "le airbag", as much as it might like.
posted by Tanizaki at 5:53 PM on August 20 [3 favorites]


Agents provocateurs is common English usage. It differs from attorney general because the latter is a wholly English phrase adapted from the French procureur général.

The pluralization, I think, is unique to phrases taken directly from French. For instance, we say "nouveaux riches" and it's even acceptable to use "bureaux," although as a more assimilated word "bureaus" has become acceptable. But we don't say opere buffe or prime donne. A lot of Italian culinary language is confusing because it's already plural, particularly with regard to types of pasta, and not always terribly accurate to Italian usage. In music, there are people who'll say concerti or tempi, but I think they're outnumbered by concertos and tempos.

I think the circumstances are somewhat linked. The French phrases are somewhat prestigious and usage is a symbol of sophistication; there is nothing sophisticated about a French phrase where the adjective doesn't match the noun. Likewise, if you say "tempi" instead of "tempos," you are establishing yourself as someone who has a wide knowledge of the Italian terms used in classical music. Similarly with terms for food; pommes frites or insalate has a certain air to it that french fries or salad simply don't. Something as plebian as pizza is never referred to as pizze, but if you go to an upscale Italian restaurant it may very well have zuppe or pesci on the menu. (In my idiolect, you'd ask for three pies, not three pizzas.)
posted by graymouser at 6:27 PM on August 20


I'm waiting for an opportunity to pluralise "faux pas" as "fauxes pas" in front of someone who knows how wrong that is, but the day hasn't come yet.

Fortunately, you'd only have to find one more faux pas to have yourself a pair worth pluralizing.
posted by a halcyon day at 11:15 PM on August 20 [1 favorite]


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