General Writing and Grammar Help/Grammar


QUESTION: Please explain the rules why "girls School" has a plural girls but in "child abuse" child is singular. Also, what would be the plurals of such of these nouns?

ANSWER: Thanks, Sunny, for your question. I hope you ask more.

First, know that you have misspelled girls' school. In your question girls' is indeed plural. It is also in the possessive case. The possessive case of a word otherwise ending in s is shown by the position of the apostrophe (after the s).

A parallel usage would be children's school or children's abuse. The plural of child [children] is irregular; that is, it's not formed in the regular way, by appending an s. In the examples in this paragraph the s is used simply to show the possessive case.

Child abuse is a different formation altogether, in that there's no possessive. Child abuse is a phrase very commonly used to express roughly the same thought as children's abuse. In child abuse, child, a noun, is used as an adjective, modifying abuse.

The reason why there's no s following child in child abuse is that a noun used as an adjective is not inflected, as it would be when used as a noun. As any other adjective in English, it's neither singular nor plural.

This is a somewhat complicated area of grammar and usage, and if my explanation is not completely clear, please follow up.

---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------

QUESTION: I thank you, Richard, for answering my query, and for correcting the error in my spelling/typing of "Girls'".
My follow-up question is:
Will the plural of "Girls' School" be "Girls' Schools"? If so, doesn't it sound odd? And what would be the plural of Child Abuse? "Abuse" being uncount noun should not be "abuses". Please indicate the subject-verb agreement in such cases.

Thanks, Sunny, for your follow-up.

1. "Girls' schools" is correct.

2. It is the noun that's inflected by number, not the phrase containing the noun. So it is correct to say that "school" [singular] can be inflected to plural ["schools"]. One does not speak of a plural of "girls' school." [See however #4 below]

3. "Abuse" can be used in either of two senses. Meaning an act of abuse, it can be inflected by number: "In the fight, Ali was subjected to multiple abuses of his body." It is however commonly used in an abstract sense, in which it cannot be inflected by number: "Abuse can lead to injury." So used, "abuse" is neither singular nor plural. Some nouns (e.g. "anger") can be used only in an abstract sense, and thus can never be inflected by number.

4. "Child abuse" is a phrase that acts as a noun, and is analyzed grammatically as a noun. Like "anger," however, it cannot be inflected by number and is neither singular nor plural.

5. If you still have a question regarding "subject-verb agreement," please ask another follow-up clarifying your specific concern.  

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Richard Johnson


I can answer any question--usually the same day--on correct English grammar, usage, and (non-fiction) writing style, usually the same day, based on the American practice. All answers are explained, and I encourage follow-up.


I'm a retired editor and a lifelong student of this subject. My library includes a great many works to which I've referred through the years. I currently rely primarily on the sixteenth edition of The Chicago Manual of Style.

For over 30 years I edited the newsletter of my own organization, which had different names but was last known as

BA, Brooklyn College. Advanced studies in economics and political science.

Awards and Honors
For many years a member of Mensa.

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