'Homo sapien forebears'?

“Scientists have unearthed startling revelations about our Homo sapien forebears,” CNN reported in December.

But is that true? I’d argue no because we don’t have Homo sapien forebears. In fact, there’s no such thing as a Homo sapien. It’s Homo sapiens.

So why did CNN use “Homo sapien” instead of “Homo sapiens”? Probably because it sounded right. And though about 99% of the time your ear is your best guide to good grammar, odd words and unusual forms are exceptions. This is one such exception.

“Homo sapien forebears” sounds better than “Homo sapiens forebears” for the same reason it sounds wrong to say you bought your loafers in a “shoes store” or you took your dog to the “pets hospital.” We know instinctively that “shoe store” and “pet hospital” are the preferred forms.

The more you think about this, the less sense it makes. There is no store that sells one shoe. They all sell multiple shoes. You’d be hard-pressed to find a veterinary hospital that serves just one pet. They all have multiple patients. So why do we use singular “shoe” when it comes in front of “store” and singular “pet” when it comes in front of “hospital”? And how is it even possible that “shoe” and “pet” can modify nouns since that’s the job of an adjective and “shoe” and “pet” are clearly not adjectives?

These are the odd properties of attributive nouns.

In grammar, a word that comes before another to describe it is called “attributive.” This usually means adjectives. In “the gray cat,” the word “gray” is an attributive adjective. But nouns can do the same job. For example, in “the cat toy,” “cat” is modifying a noun that comes after it, so it’s functioning attributively, making it an attributive noun. Here’s my recent column exploring how to use them.

Tags: , ,