The plural of compound nouns: special cases

Reminder: in general, nouns that form part of plural compound nouns are written in the plural (for example, des chirurgiens-dentistes, 'surgeon-dentists', des coffres-forts, 'safes', etc.). However, there are exceptions to this rule.
Nouns that function as complements are not written in the plural. These noun complements further define the main noun they are used with.

une année-lumière → des années-lumière (lumière est complément d'année) a light year light years (lumière functions as a complement of année)
une assurance-vie → des assurances-vie (vie est complément d'assurance) a life insurance policy life insurance policies (vie functions as a complement of assurance)
une pause-café → des pauses-café (café est complément de pause) a coffee break coffee breaks (café functions as a complement of pause)

When the compound noun is made up of verb + noun:
• If the noun is countable, it is written in the plural.

un couvre-lit → des couvre-lits a bedspread bedspreads
un essuie-glace → des essuie-glaces a windshield wiper windshield wipers

• If the noun is abstract or there is only one of it, it is written in the singular.

un porte-malheur → des porte-malheur a thing that brings bad luck things that bring bad luck (malheur (unhappiness) is an abstract noun)
un aide-mémoire → des aide-mémoire a reminder reminders (you only have one memory)
un gratte-ciel → des gratte-ciel a skyscraper skyscrapers (there is only one sky)

• New spelling rules now allow all nouns to be written with an -s. Hence, it is acceptable to write des pauses-cafés, des abat-jours, des porte-malheurs, des gratte-ciels, etc. However, these rules are not applied very often, and these spellings (with an -s) are relatively rare.
• While the plural form grand-mères (grandmothers) is traditionally written without an -s on grand, the form grands-mères is now also accepted.

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