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Why do we call it a two-car garage??
Thread poster: Rebecca Holmes

Rebecca Holmes
United States
Local time: 04:14
German to English
Jun 12, 2003

A customer just asked me why we say a "two-finger operation" or "two-car garage" instead of a "two-fingers operation" or a "two-cars garage". Although I could assure her the first versions were correct (and although I can sympathize with her confusion from the point of view of a non-native speaker), I was unable to dredge up a corresponding grammatical rule, although I am sure there must be one.
Can anyone explain this in a rule-based manner so I can pass it on to the customer? Thanks!


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Russell Jones  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 08:14
Member (2004)
Italian to English
Only nouns can be plural Jun 12, 2003

in English (and verbs of course).
"three car" is an adjectival compound.
That's my view anyway.


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Domenica Grangiotti  Identity Verified
Local time: 09:14
English to Italian
+ ...
They are Defining Adjectives, not nouns Jun 12, 2003

From the grammar point of view, they are not nouns, they are "defining adjectives", and as such they cannot be plural.

http://www.fortunecity.com/bally/durrus/153/gramch21.html#2a6

vi. Defining adjectives
When a word preceding a noun does not merely describe the object being referred to, but helps to define or identify the type of object meant, the word preceding the noun can be called a defining adjective. The defining adjectives in the following examples are underlined.
e.g. an enjoyable birthday party
a fine young man
the new telephone directory

Defining adjectives are combined with nouns to form fixed expressions, in order to refer to certain types of things. In the above examples, birthday party, young man and telephone directory are fixed expressions which are commonly used to refer to certain types of things.

In many such expressions, the defining adjectives are words which are usually used as nouns. For instance, in the above examples, birthday, and telephone are words which are usually used as nouns. In such cases, the fixed expressions are sometimes thought of as compound nouns.

Many words which are used as gerunds can also be used as defining adjectives, as illustrated in the following examples.
e.g. black hiking boots
our drinking water

In this type of fixed expression, it is also possible for two words to be used together as defining adjectives. In the following examples, the words used as defining adjectives are underlined.
e.g. a roller skating rink
a hot water bottle

Defining adjectives usually immediately precede the nouns they modify. Many defining adjectives indicate the purpose for which the object being referred to is used. In the following examples, the defining adjectives are underlined.
e.g. an egg carton
a coat hanger
a dish cloth
An egg carton is a carton used for storing eggs, a coat hanger is an object used for hanging up coats, and a dish cloth is a cloth used for washing dishes.

As can be seen in these examples, when a word usually used as a countable noun is used as a defining adjective, it is normally the singular form of the word which is used. Thus, in the preceding examples, the singular forms egg, coat and dish are used.

See Exercise 7.

Defining adjectives can also indicate the method of operation of an object. This is the case in the following examples.
e.g. a steam iron
****a ten-speed bicycle**** THIS IS YOUR EXAMPLE
an electric light

Defining adjectives sometimes help to define the object being referred to by indicating time or location.
e.g. the morning star
the winter term
the front door
the kitchen window
In these examples the adjectives morning and winter indicate time, and the adjectives front and kitchen indicate location.

Hope this helps.
Bye
Domenica
Mother of a four-year-old daughter

P.S. I am a non native speaker and had to come to terms with this rule, too.

[Edited at 2003-06-12 14:50]

[Edited at 2003-06-12 14:51]

[Edited at 2003-06-12 14:51]


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Pernille Chapman  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 08:14
Member (2004)
English to Danish
+ ...
Phew - good question! Jun 12, 2003

After trawling through my dog-eared English Grammar books, I haven't come across a proper explanation yes, but perhaps it's got something to do with the followling:

Certain language elements may be "adjectivised" (term used by Rodney Huddleston in "English Grammar: An Outline"), i.e. they function as an adjective without strictly speaking belonging to the adjective class. (To determine which word class an element belongs to, Huddleston uses a whole lot of functional criteria, which may seem rather overwhelming at times!)
I'm just guessing here, but perhaps "two-car" and "two-finger" are examples of nouns (car, finger), that have been adjectivised. As such, they would work as an adjective in relation to the nouns "job" and "garage" which are the heads of the phrase, or the more important elements, in these examples.
Still guessing, I would then suggest that the noun-element of the adjectivised noun (still with me?!), i.e. "car" and "finger" is the important one, the one that works as an adjective. Since adjectives in English are not inflected to correspond with the number of the noun which they precede, unlike e.g. French, the adjectivised element remains unchanged, no matter what precedes the "adjective".
Hope that's of any help to you - I can't wait to see if anybody else can come up with a better explanation, preferably with some concrete "proof"! Very interesting problem in any case, and good luck to you in explaining this to your client.


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xxxCHENOUMI  Identity Verified
English to French
+ ...
This is the case of Hyphenated Adjectives Jun 12, 2003

Why do we call it a two-car garage??


In this case, (two) + (car) are used as a qualifier (epithet or attribute) to the substantive "garage". IOW, the use of hyphenated adjectives that precede the noun is mandatory to avoid the string of three or more nouns.

Please see some other useful sites.

www.getitwriteonline.com/archive/040201.htm
www.virtual.clemson.edu/groups/dial/lap101/COHYPADJ.htm

From another non-native ProZie


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Giles Watson  Identity Verified
Italy
Local time: 09:14
Italian to English
For the same reason as we have "sports reporters" or "communications experts" Jun 12, 2003

Sadly, as so often in English, there is no hard and fast rule but there are useful indications.

The following comments on noun premodifications are taken from pages 399 and 400 of Randolph Quirk and Sidney Greenbaum's "A University Grammar of English", the shorter version of the landmark "A Grammar of Contemporary English", published by Longman.

In many cases, (noun premodifiers) appear to be in a reduced-explicitness relation with prepositional postmodifiers:

The question of partition - The partition question

(NB cf. your example: A garage for two cars - a two-car garage)

...

Plural nouns usually become singular, even those that otherwise have no singular form:

the leg of the trousers - the trouser leg

But while singularization is normal it is by no means universal (cf. arms race), especially with noun premodification that is not hardening into a fixed phrase or compound:

The committee on promotions - The promotions committee

...

A notable constraint against making postmodifying phrases into premodifying nouns is the relative impermanence of the modification in question. Thus while "The table in the corner" will readily yield "The corner table", we cannot do the same with "The girl in the corner [spoke to me] - "*The corner girl ..."

We must insist again that this is not a property of the lexical item (in this instance, "corner") but of the semantic relation.

HTH

Giles


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Beth Kantus  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 04:14
German to English
no hard and fast rule Jun 12, 2003

Hi Rebecca!
Hmmmm...that's a good question, but I doubt if you will find a one-size-fits-all type of rule for this. As George so aptly pointed out, it's not something that follows a set formula. Instead, I think it has to do with “Sprachgefühl” and prevailing / regional usage/preferences.
If your client is German, perhaps this will help them relate:
Why is it Zweimann-Betrieb and not Zweimänner-Betrieb, or Mehrfachwerkzeug and not Mehrfächerwerkzeug?
And why is it an Einfamilienhaus instead of an Einfamilie-Haus?
Maybe this will help!


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Dylan Edwards  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 08:14
Greek to English
+ ...
"Mice-infested" but not "rats-infested" Jun 13, 2003

A possible rule: if the first part of a compound adjective is a number, as in "one-horse town", "two-horse town", then the second part (the "noun" part) is in the singular.
This topic reminded me of Steven Pinker's "The Language Instinct" (Penguin, 1994), e.g. on page 146 he discusses the question of how children deal with this kind of thing:
Q. Here is a monster who likes to eat mice. What do you call him?
Children's answer: A mice eater.
On the other hand, "a monster who likes to eat rats" was never called "a rats eater", but always "a rat eater".
So at least there's a rule that children absorb quite early, that nouns with a regular -s plural, when used attributively (as adjectives), don't have the -s.
Of course we can think of exceptions: Trades Union Congress - can anyone explain the position of the -s in that?


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xxxElena Sgarbo  Identity Verified
Italian to English
+ ...
Translator, TranslatorS......... Jun 14, 2003

Andeds wrote:
So at least there's a rule that children absorb quite early, that nouns with a regular -s plural, when used attributively (as adjectives), don't have the -s.
Of course we can think of exceptions: Trades Union Congress - can anyone explain the position of the -s in that?



...And what about the American Translators Association??


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Rebecca Holmes
United States
Local time: 04:14
German to English
TOPIC STARTER
Many thanks Jun 16, 2003

Many thanks to all you hard-core grammar junkies out there!!!

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HRiley  Identity Verified
Local time: 09:14
Spanish to English
+ ...
More from Steven Pinker... Jun 17, 2003

Andeds wrote:

This topic reminded me of Steven Pinker's "The Language Instinct\" (Penguin, 1994), e.g. on page 146 he discusses the question of how children deal with this kind of thing


Pinker goes on to say that the experiment "...shows that in morphology children automatically distinguish between roots stored in the mental dictionary and inflected words created by a rule".

So "mice" is stored as a separate entry in the "dictionary", whereas "rats" is simply an inflected form of the root entry "rat".

OF course, this doesn't solve the Trades Union /American Translators issue


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Jeff Allen  Identity Verified
France
Local time: 09:14
Member (2011)
Multiplelanguages
+ ...
adjectival nouns Dec 27, 2005

Rebecca Holmes-Löffler wrote:
A customer just asked me why we say a "two-finger operation" or "two-car garage" instead of a "two-fingers operation" or a "two-cars garage". Although I could assure her the first versions were correct (and although I can sympathize with her confusion from the point of view of a non-native speaker), I was unable to dredge up a corresponding grammatical rule, although I am sure there must be one.
Can anyone explain this in a rule-based manner so I can pass it on to the customer?


These are simply nouns that play the roles of an adjective because they describe the type of noun that follows them.
I have dealt with this for the past 10 years in creating dictionaries for Machine Translation systems. It was even one of the key points in the Grammar for Technical Writing course that I created and gave to technical writers at Caterpillar in the 1990s.

I tell all of my native-French speaking colleagues to simply drop the final "s" of any noun that they put in front of another noun (or set of nouns). This covers about 95+% of all cases (and considerably reduces my editing time of theirtexts). It is best to give them a simple rule to use, and they can learn the exceptions, if and when there are any.

Jeff
http://jeffallen.chez.tiscali.fr/about-jeffallen.htm


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