This topic echoes a question candidates often encounter in the likes of the West African Senior School Certificate Examination, Unified Matriculation Tertiary Examination and the NECO series. At times, the examiners require the adjectival form of the expression, asking the candidates to pick between plaincloth policeman, plain-cloth policeman, plain-clothe policeman, plain-clothes policeman etc. Of course, this does not suggest that many adults who have gone beyond this level do not find the expressions challenging. We shall, therefore, identify the right options and the principles that guide such.
Cloth or clothes?
This is a question you should first be able to permanently answer before you can resolve the riddles raised above. ‘Cloth’, in this context is the fabric, the yards of woven material you buy from the market usually with the intention to hand it over to a tailor. On the other hand, ‘clothes’ refers to dresses you wear to cover your body. The implication is that when a policeman decides not to wear a uniform, putting on a civilian dress instead, he is not wearing a cloth. He is putting on clothes.
This is the nominal and more technical form (noun) of what the policeman is wearing. It is the ordinary/civilian clothes he wears instead of a uniform:
I saw a policeman in plain clothes.
The five policemen in plain clothes are still in the building.
So, the correct term is plain clothes, not plain cloth or clothe – with the latter being a verb not a noun.
Here are examples of how clothe/clothes functions as a verb:
They clothe the children well.
She clothes the orphan as due.
Going back to the topic question, therefore, we should be talking about a policeman in plain clothes:
A policeman in plain cloth has arrived. (Wrong)
A policeman in plain clothe has arrived. (Wrong)
A policeman in plain clothes has arrived. (Correct)
When you need to use the phrase adjectivally, you should remember how hyphens help us to generate adjectives: a two-man panel, a one-day show, a don’t-go-anywhere-smile etc. This is how ‘plain-clothes’ becomes the correct adjective from plain clothes:
A plain cloth policeman is there. (Wrong)
A plain-clothe policeman is there. (Wrong)
A plain-clothes policeman is there. (Correct)
Some folks present the adjective as a single word – plainclothes policeman – but I advise you opt for the hyphenated as it is more popular and more acceptable.
May I also seize this opportunity to remind you that – we have treated this before – apart from the fact that bulletproof is one word, it is also an adjective. In other words, it is wrong to use it as a noun:
The officer is wearing a bullet proof. (Wrong)
The officer is wearing a bulletproof. (Wrong)
The officer is wearing a bulletproof vest. (Correct, with ‘bulletproof’ qualifying ‘vest’.)