My Facebook friends and I engaged in an etymological rabbit chase the other day. I do, seriously, get a kick out of this stuff, even if I really should be working instead of hopping around my office pulling reference books off the shelves.
One friend wrote:
Yesterday, I posted a comment to you in which I mentioned feeding my sick cat by the spoonful throughout the day. I typed spoonsful—and spell check told me I needed to change it to spoonfuls. I didn’t have time to do more than shake my head and accept the correction, but now I’m wondering—is this yet another “improvement” to correct English of which I’ve been blissfully unaware? (And if so, what’s next? Sister-in-laws to denote multiple sisters-in-law?)
Unfortunately, I’ve already seen plenty of that sister-in-laws thing, so we’ll need to look farther afield to see what’s next. :) But I hadn’t heard spoonsful used since my mother was alive. Still, the minute I read the word it felt so familiar. My interest was piqued.
I went immediately to my fave online dictionary, which said:
Main Entry: spoon·ful
Inflected Form(s): plural spoonfuls \-lz\; also spoons·ful \-nz-\
Etymology: Middle English sponeful, from spone spoon + -ful
: the amount of material a spoon contains or can contain; specifically : TEASPOONFUL
Note that spoonsful is still listed in the plurals, but it’s the second entry now, which means if I were wearing my copyeditor hat I would have to opt for spoonfuls. Because, you know, we editors have to keep current (no matter how much certain things pain us). But … is this a recent change? I checked an analog dictionary—and my Thorndike Barnhart dictionary © 1974 only lists spoonfuls.
I repeat: copyright 1974. Forty years ago—much more than forty, given what I know about publishing—it was spoonfuls.
Other items that I looked up on this topic tended to support spoonSful (it has to do with identifying the principal word) … but I think what’s happened here is spoonful has left its roots as a compound noun (it would have been spoon-full at some point in the past) behind and has stepped out on its own as an ancestorless word. And thus the S at the end. Common usage—and the closing of the compound—made this change. A loooong time ago.
Linguists have been trying to figure out what’s going on with singulars and plurals inside English compound nouns for at least 30 years. It turns out that there are some discernible patterns and tendencies, but unfortunately, they’re subject to a lot of variation and exceptions, which makes them practically useless if you’re just trying to figure out whether to go with a singular or a plural.
It all goes back to the compound; one adds S to the principal word. So in the case of open compounds it’s easy.
He was a Templar Knight; he was a member of the Knights Templar.
Knight is the principal word and that’s where we add the S. But consider this:
He is a field marshal; there were three field marshals with us that day.
Marshal is the principal word here. You’ll add S to water bottles but insert it in cups of tea. See?
Hyphenated compounds follow the same rule. Thus we have two mothers-in-law. We still see courts-martial (though my dictionary offers court-martials as a second choice). And a compound like forget-me-not, with no principal word, simply adds S.
Grammar Girl says we’ve been trending (and fighting about trending) this way for more than thirty years; we’ve seen a lot of this change in our lifetimes. It’s no wonder we feel cranky about these words! So here’s one that will make you feel better: the plural of passerby (“one who passes by”) is still passersby. Whew!
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