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In Italian, like in many other languages, many words are obtained by putting two other words toghether (noun, adjectives, verbs). For example, "capostazione" (stationmaster) is the person who is "the master of the station" (a capo della stazione).

Pluralization of such names may sometimes be tricky: for example, the plural of "capostazione" is "capistazione".

Is there a rule of thumb?

  • mau, no, there is no rule, especially 'of thumb'. – Kyriakos Kyritsis Nov 6 '13 at 18:19
  • 1
    actually there are some rules (together with a bunch of exceptions...) – mau Nov 6 '13 at 18:24
  • mau, yes, as far as I can tell after having thought of a little second, I'd say there are at least 15 or 20 rules to apply here, if not more. – Kyriakos Kyritsis Nov 6 '13 at 18:28
  • I voted closing as 'too broad', sorry. – Kyriakos Kyritsis Nov 6 '13 at 18:30
  • There are some specific rules instead, and I don't think the question is ill-posed at all, it's actually a good question! – martina Nov 6 '13 at 21:14
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So, there are some specific rules according to how the compound noun is created.

This source, from the dictionary of one of the most important Italian newspapers, lists them. In the following, adj stays for "adjective", v for verb, adv for adverb, prep for preposition and sub for "substantive".

  1. Nouns composed as adj + sub make the plural pluralizing only the second;
  2. Nouns composed as adj + adj make the plural pluralizing only the second;
  3. Nouns composed as sub + adj make the plural pluralizing both;
  4. Nouns composed as sub + sub of the same gender make the plural pluralizing only the second;
  5. Nouns composed as sub + sub of different gender make the plural pluralizing only the first;
  6. Nouns composed as v + plural sub make the plural without any change;
  7. Nouns composed as v + singular masculine sub make the plural pluralizing only the second;
  8. Nouns composed as v + singular feminine sub make the plural without any change;
  9. Nouns composed as v + v make the plural without any change;
  10. Nouns composed as adv or prep + sub make the plural pluralizing the noun if the composite has the same gender of the component and without any change in the opposite case.

Please note that the composite noun may change gender with respect to the component nouns/noun.

Moreover, there are exceptions to the rules. The cited source reports plenty of examples of rules and exceptions.

I report some examples here, in the same order used in the list above. The first column is the singular, the second is the plural.

  1. bassorilievo --- bassorilievi
  2. bassofondo --- bassifondi
  3. terracotta --- terrecotte
  4. pescecane --- pescecani
  5. pescespada --- pescispada
  6. portapenne --- portapenne
  7. copricapo --- copricapi
  8. posacenere --- posacenere
  9. saliscendi --- saliscendi
  10. A. sottufficiale --- sottufficiali / B. sottoscala --- sottoscala

Remember, there are unfortunately plenty of exceptions. We natives apply them without even knowing them, as in other cases. Do not be afraid of making mistakes, you can be sure only if you meet the word as many times as you need to learn it along with its plural.

  • And even natives make mistakes, no matter how educated they are. Personally, I'm afraid I may have said "pescicani" more than once... – Paola Jan 4 '14 at 17:09

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