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I'd like to know if we should say:

Anne came with arms full of flower

or

Anne came with the arms full of flowers .

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    Well, I would say 'with her arms full'. Commented Jun 15, 2020 at 7:52
  • I suggest that "with arms full of flowers" is also (idiomatically) correct, and also has a subtle connotation of surprise at the large quantity. Commented Jun 15, 2020 at 7:55
  • I'll amplify Kate Bunting's comment: In English, unlike many other languages, most body-parts are referred to with possessives: I banged my head, She lifted her arm, they opened their eyes, with my arm round him. It would not be idiomatic to use the in any of those examples.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Mar 4, 2021 at 14:05

2 Answers 2

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If you pluralise 'flowers' your first example is okay, although we are more likely to say:

Anne came with her arms full of flowers.

We do have the compound word "armful" which means as much as the arm or arms can carry. There is no plural form of this word. So you could say:

Anne came with an armful of flowers.

Your second example isn't right, as we would not say "the arms" about a named person's arms that way.

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From WordHippo
What is the plural of armful?...

Where "an armful" means "the amount which can be held by an arm". Hence

Anne came with armsful / armfuls of flowers (note -ful, not -full, and plural flowers)

Some dictionaries will explicitly mention both plural forms for Xful words (fistful, forkful, spoonful, tablespoonful,...), but you'll always find a few pedants arguing for or against the position of the pluralising 's' in one or all such words.

Presumably Anne has two arms, so I don't see why she can't be carrying plural armfuls (or armsful) of flowers. But I will just mention that the Google Chrome spell-checker takes it upon itself to underline my second choice there.


TL;DR: I'm relatively tolerant of "non-standard" language variants from others, and I'm also highly confident in my own linguistic competence even where it conflicts with dictionaries, so I personally have nothing against armsful, and will defend that position against anyone.

But actually, you might find quite a lot of people (still "pedants", imho) who insist only armfuls is valid. So you might want to bear that in mind if you don't want to be labelled "ignorant".

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  • I don't remember my thinking at the time, but I kinda doubt I'd have baldly asserted "most dictionaries" like that without any support other than my own expectations. What I might have done back then (which I've just done now) is enter dictionary armsful armfuls into a Google search. The first two results www.learnersdictionary.com AND merriam-webster.com/dictionary/armful show snippets including "plural armfuls also armsful" on the Google homepage. But the next two (Cambridge & Collins) don't include armsful, so I'll edit my answer text accordingly. Commented Mar 4, 2021 at 15:49

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