How can I explain to a non-native speaker that while this is correct:

The felling of trees.

And this is also correct:

tree felling

This is not:

*trees felling

To a non-native it seems very reasonable that since many trees are being felled and given that the felling of trees uses the plural, the inverse form would also use the plural and become trees felling.

To a native speaker such as myself, the latter is very obviously wrong, but I couldn't figure out how to formalize this into a rule that a non-native can understand.

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    The question is really why the plural of a noun isn't used adjectivally. It isn't only with gerund. Tree frogs not trees frogs. Tree diseases not trees diseases.
    – TimR
    Commented Mar 26, 2016 at 12:26
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    @DamkerngT. this came up when I was proofreading a presentation written by a French friend. I would guess it would occur among learners of any language that has the felling of trees construct but not the tree felling one.
    – terdon
    Commented Mar 26, 2016 at 12:51
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    See also this question here. Commented Mar 26, 2016 at 13:48
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    @terdon Well, this sort of compounding is 'designed' to simplify the surface structure: to move what would otherwise be expressed by morphological or prepositional case-marking into the hearer's inference; so I don't think we need to look any further than the fact that the sg form is morphologically the simplest and semantically the most generic. Commented Mar 26, 2016 at 15:01
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    @snailboat Tree felling is not allowed in national parks for example.
    – terdon
    Commented Mar 26, 2016 at 17:05

2 Answers 2


There is no simple explanation, and explanations given by linguists are not to date convincing. See, for example, Sneed's work, which builds on earlier work.

You can say that there is a rising trend, that seems to correlate with the increased use of nouns + noun combination (e. g., nowadays one is more likely a Cubs fan rather than a Cub fan). There is now covers band and not just cover band; jobs report, drugs dealer (and one thinks, drugs dealing).

Just spotted: birds conservation. This seems to be a British English usage, and such nouns + noun are used more often in BrE than AmE.

I found ESPN and the Washington Post both using Numbers Crunching, which seems novel compared to the singular option. You are free to google your favorite expression and see if anyone is (yet) using it in the plural.


Why do you want to explain it when there is no simple explanation. It should be sufficient to say that in compound nouns of the type noun + noun the first noun or subnoun is normally singular with a few exceptions.

But of course, one may think about why the singular is preferred. It might be a simple case of shortening: horse trainer is shorter and easier to speak than horses trainer.

Another reason might have been that in spoken language it might have been disturbing to decide whether girls class or girls' class was said, and that girl class was simply unambiguous.

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    Because when I posted this question, I hadn't yet spent 3 hours discussing it in the ELU chat room and believed there was a simple explanation.
    – terdon
    Commented Mar 26, 2016 at 17:07
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    You might find this link useful :) quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/compound-nouns
    – Yuri
    Commented Mar 28, 2016 at 10:24

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