Compound Noun Plurals

Pluriels des noms composés

French compound nouns are made up of two or more words, often connected by hyphens. Making them plural can be a little tricky, but there are two rules that generally apply:

  1. Nouns, adjectives, and past participles follow the normal pluralization rules.
  2. Verbs, prepositions, adverbs, and pronouns are invariable.

Here are the most common combinations of words in French compound nouns and the general rules for their pluralization. Please note that these are just guidelines and that there are, of course, exceptions. (Le Bon Usage has an excellent in-depth discussion of compound noun plurals.)

1) Noun + noun

When the nouns are equally important, they both become plural.

un oiseau-mouche des oiseaux-mouches   hummingbird(s)
un chou-fleur des choux-fleurs   cauliflower

When one noun is modifying the other (usually with the help of a preposition), only the first noun becomes plural.

un soutien-gorge des soutiens-gorge   bra(s)
un arc-en-ciel des arcs-en-ciel   rainbow(s)
un chef-d’œuvre des chefs-d’oeuvre   masterpiece(s)

2) Noun + adjective

Both are plural.

un coffre-fort des coffres-forts   safe(s)
un pied-plat des pieds-plats   boor(s)
un grand-père des grands-pères   grandfather(s)
une belle-fille des belles-filles   daughter(s)-in-law, step-daughter(s)

Exceptions

  • Adjectives ending in -o are invariable
       des Anglo-Saxons – Anglo-Saxons
       des électro-analyses
    – electroanalyses
  • Demi is invariable
       des demi-bouteilles – half bottles
       des demi-tasses – half cups

3) Adjective + adjective

Both are plural.

une douce-amère des douces-amères   woody nightshade
un sourd-muet des sourds-muets   deaf-mute(s)

4) Adverb + noun

Only noun is plural.

une arrière-cour des arrière-cours   backyard(s)
un haut-parleur des haut-parleurs   loudspeaker(s)

5) Adverb / adjective + past participle

Only participle is plural.

un nouveau-né des nouveau-nés   newborn(s)
un bien-aimé des bien-aimés   beloved(s)

6) Preposition + noun

Only noun is plural.

une contre-offensive des contre-offensives   counter-offensive(s)
un en-tête des en-têtes   heading(s)
un après-midi des après-midis   afternoon(s)

7) Verb + noun

If the noun is concrete and countable, the noun is plural.

un brise-glace des brise-glaces   icebreaker(s)
un couvre-lit des couvre-lits   bedspread(s)

If the noun is abstract or collective, traditionally the compound noun is invariable. But the 1990 spelling reform allows the noun to be plural.

un porte-monnaie des porte-monnaie
des porte-monnaies
  change purse(s)
un gratte-ciel des gratte-ciel
des gratte-ciels
  skyscraper(s)

8) Verb + verb

Invariable.

un laissez-passer des laissez-passer   pass(es)
un va-et-vient des va-et-vient   comings and goings

 More French nouns

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French compound nouns
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2 Responses

  1. zipfslaw1 1 September 2018 / 8:43

    I can’t find a rule here for zombies! Mort-vivant?

    • lkl 1 September 2018 / 13:05

      The plural is morts-vivants, noun + adjective.

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