Grammar rule for a singular container of plural items
September 2, 2020 11:18 AM   Subscribe

In English we have terms like "pencil case", "shoe box", "tool box", "cocktail bar", where we use the singular even though the contents are assumed to be plural, i.e. more than one pencil, shoe, tool or cocktail is intended to be inside. Is there a name for this rule and is it ungrammatical to break it, e.g. "bookmarks bar".
posted by w0mbat to Writing & Language (17 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I think in the cases you've described the first word in each combo is serving as an adjective of sorts, so the singular verb is applied to the "container", not the contents. That means that "bookmarks bar" is probably okay grammatically.

Source: me, because I call my bookmarks bar a bookmarks bar.
posted by Kitchen Witch at 11:27 AM on September 2, 2020 [1 favorite]

Professional copy editor here. I agree that in your examples, the first word acts as an adjective. In English, nouns used as adjectives are usually singular, but not always (for instance, we say "sports medicine" not "sport medicine"). What is "correct" is going to be determined by usage, i.e., what becomes accepted over time. If enough people say "bookmarks bar," then that will eventually be correct. I think I'd prefer "bookmark bar," but I'm really not sure what the more common usage is.
posted by FencingGal at 11:37 AM on September 2, 2020

It's not a hard and fast rule. In Pencil case, pencil is a noun adjective or attributive noun. Plural attributives for containers (of a sort) do exist - goods train, clothes rack, etc. I feel that the concept of pluralia tantum is an interesting side note - trousers is never singular, except in the singular attributive noun trouser press.
posted by zamboni at 11:40 AM on September 2, 2020

For "bookmarks bar" vs "bookmark bar" Google trends shows them nearly identical, but a Google search for the terms gets about 100 times as many hits for "bookmark bar".
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 11:47 AM on September 2, 2020

The Novel Interpretations of Nominal Plural Attributives in Modern English:
In accordance with traditional English grammar, “nouns as attributives in English are not expressed in plural forms” (Kruisinga, 2009, p. 126), and “attributive nouns are singular except that no singular form exists” (Thomson & Martinet, 1991, p. 22). Nonetheless, “this generally accepted rule now appears to be wrong” (Halliday, 1994, p. 92) since Jesperson (1954) claimed as early as in the year 1914 that plural nouns can be used as attributes, adding, however, the plural forms of nouns as attributives ought to be limited into a very narrow range. As a matter of fact, more and more plural nouns are beginning to act as attributes, which seems to be an irreversible trend of modern English (Zhang, 2001; Zhang, 1991). As such, under whatever circumstances are plural nouns used as attributes?
The paper goes on to list fourteen categories or exceptions where plural nouns tend to be used as attributes.
posted by zamboni at 11:52 AM on September 2, 2020 [7 favorites]

Linguist and editor here. Compound nouns are just a total fucking godawful train wreck. Their meanings are idiosyncratic, their spellings and sylings are idiosyncratic, and there are few to no actual rules. When you're editing text that includes them, you end up making a ton of arbitrary decisions, and revisiting those decisions often. (Partly that's because they evolve faster over time than other words, too — think "e-mail" becoming "email.")

My personal preference is for "bookmark bar." But if I were working for a client who wanted "bookmarks bar," I would shrug, ask if they were sure, and then add it to my style sheet for that client — which, if I'd been there longer than a few weeks, would already have a squillion other arbitrary compound-noun-related decisions.
posted by nebulawindphone at 11:52 AM on September 2, 2020 [7 favorites]

(That said, if you want to handle something like this in a way that isn't totally arbitrary, looking at usage is a very common approach. My current employer switched from "e-mail" to "email" not because of some rule of grammar that "e-mail" violated, but because it became very obvious that everyone else in the world had switched to "email." If there's a clear majority for "bookmark bar," then that's as good a reason for using it as you're likely to get.)
posted by nebulawindphone at 12:02 PM on September 2, 2020 [1 favorite]

Another copy editor here. (Hey! Look at all these word nerds here in this question!)

Here's the Ngram Viewer -- which measures usage in print. It shows a marked preference for "bookmarks bar" in both American English and general English.
posted by BlahLaLa at 12:20 PM on September 2, 2020

trousers is never singular, except in the singular attributive noun trouser press

It's a pair of trousers because trousers used to be two separate garments, a left leg and a right leg. Men wore a codpiece to cover the gap in the middle.

You can say "clothes" rack because "clothes" is a singular commodity like "clothing" not a plural. You would not say "coats rack" or "hats rack".
posted by w0mbat at 12:44 PM on September 2, 2020 [1 favorite]

Professional copy editor here. I agree that in your examples, the first word acts as an adjective. In English, nouns used as adjectives are usually singular, but not always (for instance, we say "sports medicine" not "sport medicine").

In UK English we say "sport medicine".
posted by w0mbat at 12:51 PM on September 2, 2020 [3 favorites]

Firefox 78 refers to its toolbars as the Menu Bar and the Bookmarks Toolbar (see View->Toolbars on the Menu Bar). Chromium 83 has a "bookmarks bar" without capitalization (see Settings->Appearance). So there's that.
posted by flabdablet at 12:59 PM on September 2, 2020

Thanks for your answers. Zamboni hit the nail on the end by naming the rule in the right terminology.

Things in hi tech like "bookmarks bar" (which is as grammatical as a coats rack) tend to be named by engineers, frequently with English as a second language. They may get renamed by program managers, product managers, lawyers, marketing people, execs, sometimes many times before release. Often the original engineer name sticks.

Occasionally there is someone there who you would consult to name things sensibly and grammatically (I was on a browser team with Scott Knaster the great tech writer once), but most often there is not, and even Scott wasn't always listened to.
Then other teams and companies and products parrot that name, good or bad, without much thought. Finally people cite its own existence as proof of its correctness which is true in some Darwinist sense, but it still should have been "bookmark bar" in the first place.
posted by w0mbat at 2:29 PM on September 2, 2020 [1 favorite]

The bad-englishness of it is what makes this pin work as a joke.
posted by aubilenon at 4:02 PM on September 2, 2020

I think in the case of "bookmarks bar", the difference is that the "bar" is just a UI element that is selected by its name. Since the element leads to a group of bookmarks, it says "bookmarks", and that's pretty much every feature the end user knows about that UI element. (on mouseup, on mousedown, etc are not particularly noticed by most users.)

If you had a {pencil case |tool box | cocktail bar}, whether or not it says {"pencils" | "tools" | "cocktails"} on the outside, it can still do its job {holding pencils | carrying tools | serving drinks}, and you can select a single item from the thing. And if you labeled the {case | box | bar} (ignore edge cases like catchalls like "stationery"), you *would* write {"pencils" | "tools" | "cocktails"} on it, an indeterminate number of things is plural. So you can interact with a single sub-item from the collection at at time.

Also, the {case | box | bar} exists outside the specificity of what's in them...a case, a box, a bar, even using the same sense of each word, there's other kinds of attache case or junk box or wine bar.

From the typical user's standpoint, the word "bookmarks" is the sum total of the features of the user interface element. The sum total of interaction is point and click (not "carry" or "meet someone at..."). The list of bookmarks is the only response. The UI element is labeled "bookmarks" just like the case would be labeled "pencils" or the bar would have a neon sign that says "cocktails".

NOW! conversely, there's the "view" menu. It allows you to change subfeatures of what you're viewing. So it's the not labeled "views", so we don't call it the "views" menu. But if you had a menu or button in, say a CAD program that allowed you to select between different views of the model (top left front bottom), it would be labeled "views" because you select from different views. And that button or menu would be called the "views" button or menu.
Looking up from this wall of text, my browser has "tools" as the label for a drop-down menu. I would call that the "tools" menu. But a palette of features that changes depending on the tool you're using would be the "tool" palette.
posted by notsnot at 5:30 PM on September 2, 2020 [1 favorite]

Seems to me that the kind of detailed post facto rationalization for an arbitrary outcome that notsnot has offered here perfectly exemplifies the genesis of pretty much all the "rules" of English grammar.

English is compatibility shims and polyfills all the way down.
posted by flabdablet at 10:46 PM on September 2, 2020 [1 favorite]

Counter-example: drinks cabinet.

Another problem occurs with words that are commonly both nouns and adjectives. If your firm has a box where they keep samples, it will be called the "samples box" -- a "sample box" would be a box that itself is a sample. Contrast "take a look at the examples list" with "take a look at the example list".
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 11:17 PM on September 2, 2020

Finally people cite its own existence as proof of its correctness which is true in some Darwinist sense, but it still should have been "bookmark bar" in the first place.

It's not its existence that matters so much as its acceptance and adoption by a majority (or sufficiently large minority) of people. Language is a thing that exists by consensus, and the way languages change over time is that a new usage starts spreading when people hear it, it doesn't trigger a "what is this awful wrongness" reaction, and it joins the great mass of usage patterns that is their language. Judging acceptability on the basis of actual acceptance is the standard approach of descriptive linguistics (rather than prescriptive linguistics, which focuses on "correctness" according to a particular static model).

"Bookmarks toolbar" triggers the wrongness reaction for a relatively small number of people because of reasons described in comments above, while something like "pencils case" would trigger it for a much larger proportion of speakers. This isn't just, or even mostly, about non-native speakers; linguistic drift is a real and legitimate phenomenon in any language among its own native speakers. (Your "sport medicine" is as horrifying to me as it seems "bookmarks toolbar" is to you. But I can imagine my reaction changing over time given enough exposure to that usage.) Today's English is a point of flux between yesterday's English and tomorrow's, and that will always be the case.

tl;dr: if you're a copy editor, be prepared to update your linguistic judgments over time and recognize nuanced, fuzzy patterns rather than sharply-defined rules. If you're not, you can decide for yourself whether you want to feel annoyance or acceptance of this ever-present feature of the human condition.
posted by trig at 1:56 AM on September 3, 2020 [3 favorites]

« Older Best car phone mount to hang from useless nav...   |   Coffee without getting out of bed Newer »

You are not logged in, either login or create an account to post comments