I took my older daughter on a Girl Scout camping trip this past weekend. It was a hoot (a cold, wet hoot). In addition to being a great experience insofar as camping is concerned, I also came across a couple of column topics.
This week, the topic is plurals of –ful words. As I sat with my co-leader at one of the scheduled activities, we discussed at one point whether or not the girls had cupfuls of cocoa or cupsful of cocoa. Strangely, we couldn’t come to a definitive answer. They both seemed correct in their own ways.
Remarkably, upon further investigation, I found that they are both correct.
It used to be that the plurals of –ful words (truckful, teaspoonful, bucketful) were always formed – without fail – with the s directly preceding the suffix –ful. Times have changed, however; as I have said countless time in this column, language is a living, fluid thing. Treatment of the –ful words have changed, and adding the s to the end of the word is now considered a correct option by virtually all authorities. Check the dictionary if you don’t believe me. I referenced eight different dictionaries (all updated within the past two years), and found both plurals present in all of them.
What I believe has happened is this: we have changed how we view this type of word. Where we used to see a separate word followed by a mere suffix, we now see an entity all of its own. So instead of pluralizing spoon in spoonful (spoonsful), we now simply pluralize the word as a whole: spoonfuls.
That doesn’t make the mid-word pluralization incorrect, mind you. Some people still very much prefer this method of pluralizing –ful words, and they might correct you if you prefer the newer end-of-word pluralization. Some people think the mid-word method seems more formal, and others think it seems so formal that it borders on stodgy or haughty.
Either way, you can take your sugar by spoonsful or spoonfuls to make the medicine go down. It works both ways, even if Mary Poppins probably would have turned up her nose at the newer version.