This month we’ll explore variations in form that can be confusing when some compound nouns move from singular to plural. We’ll also take a look at the word ‘literally’, semi- and bi- prefixes, and other Confusables.
Plural of Compound Nouns
There are several different types of compound nouns, so it’s not surprising errors often occur when they are pluralized. They can be hyphenated, as in ‘sister-in-law’; have spaces between the words, as in ‘cup of tea’; or be merged words, also known as closed compound nouns, such as ‘classroom.’ Mistakes are common in pluralization of the first two types. For virtually all merged compound nouns, like ‘toothbrush,’ you would simply add ‘es.’ But even that simple pluralization rule has some exceptions, such as ‘passersby’ and ‘paperwork.’
The instinct may be to pluralize the last word of compound nouns that have hyphens or spaces — common errors are ‘sister-in-laws,’ and ‘hole-in-ones’. In most cases you should simply pluralize the principal word, and/or the word that changes in number.
Some examples of exceptions and unique plurals:
*Other examples: ‘spoonfuls of honey,’ ‘bucketfuls of apples.’ Pluralizing the principal word, such as ‘teaspoonsful,’ is considered archaic.
Literally vs. Figuratively
The use of ‘literally’ when a meaning is intended figuratively happens frequently, though more often in speech than in written communications. If someone says, “This quarter was so tough we were literally pulling teeth to get enough sales,” you’d know they are joking (about the teeth, of course). Another example: “I have literally created a monster!” If you mean something figuratively, avoid using ‘literally.’ If you really want to use ‘literally’ — and it’s often not necessary to make your point — reserve it for expressing something that is true, such as “I literally walked three miles to get here.”
Bi-weekly vs. Semi-weekly; Bi-annual vs. Semi-annual
It’s easy to forget distinctions between similar words, like bi-weekly and semi-weekly. The simple way to remember is to consider their Latin roots: the prefix ‘bi’ means two, while ‘semi’ means half. A ‘bi’ prefix usually means “every two,” so ‘bi-weekly’ refers to every two weeks, and ‘bi-annual’ refers to once every two years. ‘Semi-weekly’ means every half week, and ‘semi-annual’ refers to every half year. A less common usage for ‘bi’ is “twice every,” but to avoid confusion it’s best to use ‘bi’ for “every two” and ‘semi’ for “twice every” week/month/year.
Here are pairs of words from The New American Dictionary of Difficult Words often mistaken for each other or used incorrectly:
Inapt/Inept: These words are often mixed up. While ‘inapt’ means unsuitable or inappropriate, such as an inapt comment, ‘inept’ refers to incompetence, as in “The inept bartender didn’t know what a Rusty Nail was.”
Insightful/Perceptive: ‘Insightful’ means characterized by an intuitive ability to understand the inner nature of something, as in “She made insightful comments about the cost of generating leads.” ‘Perceptive’ refers to the ability to clearly see and understand the external aspects of something, as in “He made a perceptive observation about my stage fright.”