Grammar Wednesday

The “I’m too busy to write an explanation” edition.

I’m in the crazy preparation period for a couple of brand new classes in a brand new environment, so I’ve been a little less than comprehensive in my blogging lately.  Here, then, is California Teacher Guy, come to save me with another of his observant questions.

My dear Mrs. Chili,

Why is the plural of passerby passersby, while the plural of handful is handfuls? I hope you can shed some light on this mystery.

With eager anticipation and gratitude,

I haven’t had the time to research this, but my instinct tells me that passersby is the way it is because it’s the passers who are plural – not the bys (if there even were such a thing).  I’m just guessing here, but I’d say that handfuls, rather than handsful, is the correct plural because we’re talking about a quantity – the amount that can fit in the hands – and not the hands themselves.  Like I said, though, I’m just guessing.

Is anyone else able to shed a little better-researched light?



Filed under Grammar

6 responses to “Grammar Wednesday

  1. I don’t have a complete answer, but I can hazard a guess: in handful, -ful is a suffix and cannot standalone — handful is not a compound word.

    Passerby is a compound word, so the plural goes on the word, inside a compound even, that is plural.

    Makes sense to me, anyway.

    Should I mention ones like attorneys general?

  2. Do not read this post before your morning caffeine after hosting a department meeting.
    My head is spinning


  3. Wordlily, I think you’re right.

    Passerby is still two distinct words that just happen to be written as a single word sometimes. I don’t think it’s quite a compound yet – if it were you’d probably get some other things happening.

    handful – you’re absolutely right – is a morphologically complex word. It has a stem hand- and a suffix -ful, which, despite deriving from it, is not the same as the independent lexical item full. You can also tell by the prosody of these words when you put them in a sentence.
    He has a handful of rice versus
    He has his hand full of rice
    Note the difference in wordhood between handful and hand full; the latter gets two distinct stresses, one on hand, the other on full. The first gets only one stress on hand.

    Then, the rest of the story is easy; plural -s (actually, underlyingly it’s /-z/) will affix to the end of a word, and as handful is a single word, you get handfuls, but passerby isn’t really a word; only passer is, so you get passers by.

    Possessive -s is a bit of an interesting issue. How come you get The Queen of England’s crown, but not The Queen’s of England crown? It is, after all, the Queen’s crown, and not England’s.

    • Lydia Segal

      “The Queen of England” is her title, the whole name as it were. It could be the Queen’s crown or England’s Queen’s crown – how ’bout that?
      Just a bit of silly after all that earnest grammar.

  4. Anonymous

    hand fuls

  5. pdharshini

    What is the plural of Looker-on then?

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