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Grammatically Speaking, March 2006

Dear Richard,

Can you please explain the difference between a noun adjunct and a compound noun? Also, if we're not supposed to pluralize the first part of these--and I know we're not--why does it sound okay to say the arms race?

Thanks for your help.

Caroline Newman
Fort Wayne, IN USA

Dear Caroline,

A noun adjunct and a compound noun are really one and the same. The only difference is that a noun adjunct is written as two separate words (e.g., train tracks) whereas a compound noun appears as one word (railroad).

As to why the descriptive element (the first part) in arms race is plural, it's because this noun isn't used in the singular, arm, when referring to weaponry. Another example is an earnings statement. Earnings just isn't a word you'd use in the singular.

A second reason that some noun adjuncts have the descriptive element in the plural is that they are low-frequency items and fall through the cracks, so to speak. An example of this is appropriations committee.

And there's a third way English speakers "break the rule": we keep the plural forms in descriptive elements that have foreign plural forms. In fact, many people don't recognize that these forms are plural. An example is the phrase data entry. The singular of the Latin word is datum, but it's becoming more and more acceptable to use data as a singular noun since people don't recognize that it's plural.

I hope that helps, Caroline. Thanks for sending in those questions.

Dear Richard,

I teach a beginning EFL class in a private language school. Recently a student sneezed in class, and I automatically said, "God bless you." Then I explained to the students that that's what we traditionally say when somebody sneezes.

Not long after that, one of the students asked me why we say bless and not blesses. (The class had already learned the simple present tense, mind you.) She knew that God must be third-person singular, so she was confused as to why the -es wasn't on the end of the verb bless. I told her it was complicated and that she would learn all about that when her English got more advanced.

Then I started thinking about it. You can also say, "May God bless you," in which case you don't add the -es to bless because of the modal auxiliary may. Is that the reason, Richard, or is there something else going on that I'm not aware of? I don't even know if there's a special grammatical name for this verb form. Hope you can help me out.

Lyle Jewison
Manaus, Brazil

Dear Lyle,

Yes, there is a name for that form. It's called the formulaic subjunctive and has its roots in an old form of the English subjunctive. Even the phrase that you figured out, May God bless you, has its origins in the old subjunctive. (And, by the way, that was a very nice bit of linguistic detective work on your part!)

Sentences in the formulaic subjunctive don't need to be analyzed; they only need to be memorized and appropriately used by students, who can do so at any level, in my opinion. Other common sentences that use the formulaic subjunctive are Long live the Queen!, Heaven help us!, and Peace be unto you.

That should do it, Lyle. A very interesting question. Thank you!

Dear Mr. Firsten:

Is it only me, or do others also have a problem with how many and much are traditionally taught in ESOL grammar books? In the lessons dealing with count and noncount nouns, there's always that part that says to use many for count nouns and much for noncount nouns. Well, that's okay as far as it goes, but when a student said, "I have much trouble with this grammar," I had to tell him he should say, "I have a lot of trouble with this grammar" because it didn't sound right to me. The grammar book we're using just doesn't account for this situation. I'm really not sure why his sentence didn't sound right to me when I know that much should be used since trouble is a noncount noun in this case. Can you please help me out here? Thanks in advance.

Toni McLellan
San Antonio, TX USA

Dear Ms. McLellan:

Grammar books are indeed starting to account for the situation you were presented with. I suppose many teachers have given them feedback on this matter.

Even though there's nothing wrong grammatically with how your student used much, the quantifier much is reserved mostly for negative statements. For example, if he had said, "I don't have much trouble with this grammar," you wouldn't have batted an eye. Using the adverbial phrase very much in affirmative statements isn't a problem, even in something as simple as Thank you very much.

English speakers tend to use a lot of or lots of in place of much in affirmative statements. A perfect example is the correction you gave your student. Much is a tricky word to deal with. I can cite examples where much works just fine (Our new baby has brought much joy into our lives), but they are still the exception rather than the rule; a lot of or lots of is still preferred over much in affirmative statements. Tell your students to use a lot of or lots of in affirmative statements and the quantifier much in negative statements, and that should suffice at this point in their language learning.

Many thanks for your much-appreciated question!

Brain Teaser

Here's the Brain Teaser from my last column: In many languages that have a singular indefinite article, this article is the same as the word for one. Spanish is a good example of this:una camisa = a shirt or one shirt. So how do you explain the difference between a/an and one in English in a simple, easy-to-understand way?

Anton Rozhdestvensky of St. Petersburg, Russia, sent in the first complete answer:

I especially like this question because, as a speaker of Russian, I had some trouble learning to use the articles in English. You see, we don't have them in Russian. One of my teachers explained this very simply to my class. She said that we use a/an only to show that a thing you can count is singular. The only time we say one is when we are counting. So, if somebody asks you, "How many shirts did you buy today?" you can reply, "I bought one shirt." But if you are telling somebody, for example, what you bought a friend as a gift, you should say, "I bought him a shirt," not one shirt.

Very nicely explained, Anton! There's nothing better than to have a clear, simple explanation for students, and your teacher did a very good job of that.


In lieu of a new Brain Teaser, here's a Forum question inspired by this letter from Julia Kincaid:

Dear Richard,

More and more I've noticed that people are using cardinal numbers when giving dates instead of ordinal numbers. All the ESOL texts I know teach that we use ordinal numbers for dates, for example, January first, not January one. Yet January one is exactly what I'm hearing more of these days. Is this becoming acceptable, and if so, why don't grammar books say so?

Julia Kincaid
Vaughan, Ontario, Canada

You've raised a very interesting question. Is the language going through some sort of transition as far as dates go? I've heard dates like January one so often that I don't feel too uncomfortable with them anymore. On the other hand, if somebody said January twenty-three, I think I wouldn't find that quite as acceptable.

Instead of answering this question outright, I'd like to hear from the readers: Is it or is it not acceptable to use cardinal numbers in dates instead of ordinal numbers? And have you found any similar elements of English that seem to be going through a transition?

Please e-mail your responses to, or send them in by snail mail to

Richard Firsten
c/o Lindsey Hopkins Technical Education Center
750 NW 20th Street
Miami, FL 33127 USA

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