Singular vs plural with multiple nouns stringed together


As a general rule, I learnt that when stringing together multiple nouns to form a noun phrase, the nouns acting as adjectives lose their ending "s", even if they carry a plural meaning.

For example:

  • asset inventory (an inventory of many assets)
  • sample collection (a collection of samples)
  • system logs (multiple logs of multiple systems)

Now my question is: if the nouns on the left always lose their s (do they?), how can I distinguish when the noun is actually singular or plural? See the following examples:

  • risk analysis (how can I tell apart if the analysis is of a single risk or multiple risks?)
  • system log (is it the log of a single or multiple systems ? )
  • vulnerability assessment (am I assessing a single vulnerability or more than one?)

and so on...

How can I avoid the ambiguity that derives from this kind of noun phrases?


Posted 2014-10-02T10:03:55.190

Reputation: 284



Only the context can be used to indicate this, together with local knowledge (for example it is far more likely, in my experience, that a "System Log" contains information about one system, not many). However using the prefix "specific" before any of these cases indicates that it is more likely to be singular.

For example:

To find the cause of this system error we need to look in the specific system log.

If you want to know more about the vulnerability, you need to read the specific vulnerability assessment

It is not foolproof, and really only indicates that your target is just one of many such objects, whereas the actual object could itself be a collection. But I think in the absence of other context or local knowledge it would be well understood by a native speaker.

Marv Mills

Posted 2014-10-02T10:03:55.190

Reputation: 388


You are correct about the potential ambiguity. You can avoid it by rewording the sentence to use the relevant noun as a noun instead of an adjective. Like instead of saying, "The team has written a risk assessment" you could say, "The team has written an assessment of the risk", or "... of the risks", as the case may be. Or you could add words to the sentence to clarify. "The team has written a risk assessment that covers 20 identified risks" versus "... a risk assessment of the one major risk that we have discussed", etc.


Posted 2014-10-02T10:03:55.190

Reputation: 51 729