John Larrysson Column: Plurals, Capitalisation and the Alphabetical Order of Compound Words

When there is more than one of a compound word, the plural of that compound word is created by adding –s, to the key word and not necessarily to the last word. Although some words have plurals that do not involve adding -s.

Compound word



Brother in law

Brothers in law


Court martial

Courts martial

(a military court)

Governor General

Governors General


Man of war

Men of war

(The plural form has no -s ending.)

(a warship, a type of jellyfish)
Fleur de lis Fleurs de lis (a tradition symbol of French royalty)
Air conditioner Air conditioners  

audio 1

When a compound word is a name all important words are capitalised, even if one word would not be capitalized on its own. Usually articles, prepositions etc... are not capitalised, unless they are at the beginning of the name or sentence.

I went to Hong Kong University. 

That is my university.

Lake Ontario is very large. 

That lake is very large. 

The People’s Liberation Army is very important. 

The army is very important. 

There is a territorial dispute in the South China Sea. 

There is a territorial dispute in the sea. 

Dr. Alice Lee wrote* the text book, Intellectual Property in Hong Kong.  

Dr. Alice Lee is an expert on intellectual property in Hong Kong. 

(* Along with Dr. Pendleton)

audio 2


Capitalisation of new words or compounds


Some compound words include names that should normally be capitalised. When the origin of a name has been largely forgotten the word is no longer capitalised. For example when google is used as a verb it is usually not capitalised. The same applies to compound words. This use is a bit of a grey area and the writer's judgement is needed. If you are really unsure check a dictionary or google the word.


I like macintosh apples. (The apple variety, not the computer.)


He wears wellington boots.

We will eat bulgar wheat salad.


audio 3


Alphabetical Order


In an index, words must be put in alphabetical order and compound words raise a few difficulties. The accepted solution has been to list a space or a hyphen before a letter.

Foot soldier is before football


Reason: The space comes before the b.


Pro-rugby is before property


Reason: The hyphen comes before the p. Pro is short for professional.


Property is before provable


Reason: The p comes before the v.


Nasa is before National Agriculture


Reason: Nasa is a very commonly used acronym and it is treated as a word. The s comes before the t.


Prefixes are a method of creating new English words. If a new form is created that people have not seen, it is better to hyphenate the new word. The hyphen will help people recognise what you mean. Pro-Shatin can be understood as favouring Shatin, whereas proshatin may not be recognised.

These suggestions explain how English most commonly uses hyphens. However often the writer needs to use their own judgement. Check dictionaries or google the word to find the most common and useful form.

audio 4

by John Larrysson

[email protected]

A native English speaker who has been teaching practical English in Hong Kong for more than a decade.