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Noun Function 8 - Noun Modifiers

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Nouns often modify other nouns, as in noun modifier or sentence structure. We have thousands of terms where a first noun modifies an ensuing noun:

hotdog bun football game college course chair legs and many more

Here’s our sentence, this time showing the noun modifier:

8. Noun Modifiers

Our model sentence shows a noun modifier:

The professor, John Smith, is the noun expert, so yesterday he gave the class his views on the importance of learning to write papers clearly, his students feverishly taking notes on all he said.

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Noun Chains

“Noun Chain Strangulation Problems”

Unfortunately, these days, many writers have gone berserk and now shorten everything down to a chain of nouns so long that nobody can figure out what modifies what. The tendency shows up especially in the sciences, engineering, the defense establishment, business schools, the legal profession, academe, and bureaucracies in general.

Noun chains represent one of the biggest impediments to reading ever devised. They can consist of two words (noun chain), three words (noun chain use), four words (noun chain use reduction), five words (noun chain use reduction technique), and so on.

When readers encounter one of these expressions, they don’t know how to read it until the expression ends, for the first noun might satisfy the sentence, the second noun might satisfy the sentence, the third noun might satisfy the sentence, and so on.

Think about the following flows of words entering your brain. In each instance, your brain is satisfied with each ensuing noun, and it’s not until you reach the end that you realize that the teacher relies on an exercise:

The teacher relies on a noun . . . . The teacher relies on a noun chain . . . . The teacher relies on a noun chain use . . . . The teacher relies on a noun chain use reduction . . . . The teacher relies on a noun chain use reduction technique . . . . The teacher relies on a noun chain use reduction technique exercise.

The reader must reach the end of the noun chain before realizing that the teacher relies on an exercise.

Dean Richard Wydick, whom I referred to in an earlier section, wrote the wonderful little book Plain English for Lawyers. In it, he observes:

A long chain of nouns used as adjectives is likely to strangle the reader. That is, noun chains create noun chain reader strangulation problems. Bureaucrats love noun chains. They write about draft laboratory animal rights protection regulations and about public service research dissemination program proposals. Richard Wydick, Plain English for Lawyers, p. 61 (2d ed. 1985).

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Initialese

My NCURTE

I realize that noun chains overwhelmingly tempt many technical, scientific, legal, military, academic, and bureaucratic writers, but they really do hurt our writing. If the noun chain has achieved the status of a term of art, then perhaps you should keep it. But you should not fall into the trap of thinking that all these structures merit professional worship. Typically, they run so far out of control that the inevitable acronym must step in to try to salvage the situation and take its place.

Soon the language will collapse down into strings of abbreviations, a condition BryanGarnercalls initialese. Garner Legal, p. 447. The tendency shows up in the writing of judges:

The following facts cannot be found in the complaint: REDCO’s previous dealing with TOI, REDCO’s reasons for conducting an EFP, Merrill’s inability to find REDCO an EFP partner, REDCO’s introduction of TOI to Merrill, Hutton and NYME’s lack of knowledge of TOI’s default until June 11, and NYME’s instigation of a rules compliance investigation after June 11. Ryder Energy Distribution Corp. v. Merrill Lynch Commodities, Inc., 748 F.2d 774 (2d Cir. 1984), quoted in Garner Legal, p. 447.

In the above passage, why the noun chain rules compliance investigation was not dubbed an RCI will forever remain a mystery.

Initialese also shows up in writing intended to be scholarly. Mr. Garner, as we might imagine, has his hard-hitting opinion on the matter:

This kind of writing might be thought more scholarly than ordinary, straightforward prose. It isn’t. Rather, it’s tiresome and inconsiderate writing; it betrays the writer’s thoughtlessness toward the reader and a puerile fascination with the insubstantial trappings of scholarship. Garner Oxford, p. 2.

Ponder this “scholarship,” ironically appearing in a journal on linguistics:

SLIP, like VALP and ECC, is a defeasible constraint that is obeyed by all the types of head-nexus phrase considered thus far. It guarantees that (except in SLASH-binding contexts that we turn to in a moment) the SLASH value of a phrase is the SLASH value of its head-daughter. Quoted in Garner Oxford, p. 3.

Don’t ask.

I guess I should anoint my “noun chain use reduction technique exercise” as an, uh, NCURTE (pronounced “In-curt”). Then I can appear scholarly.

And cool.

Hard Copy

You may download our entire discussion of the Parts of Speech. Simply download the Grammar eBook Understanding the Parts of Speech.

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Fixing Noun Chains

SLIP You a VALP

To fix the problem of noun chains—and thus to nix the need for all these initials—you’ll have to bring in two kinds of words: verbs and prepositions. Why? Because verbs and prepositions are the primary helping hands nouns need to get on the back of a sentence.

Focus on the noun completing the sentence. Put it up front so that it satisfies the noun urge. Then figure out what you’re trying to say, bring in the verbs and prepositions, and watch the noun chain disappear. Let’s take my ridiculous example above:

The teacher relies on a noun chain use reduction technique exercise.

Notice that the teacher relies on an exercise. The word exercise completes the thought. Thus, put it up front:

The teacher relies on an exercise as a technique to reduce the use of noun chains.

Let’s use shorter words:

The teacher uses an exercise as a way to reduce the use of noun chains.

Or:

The teacher uses an exercise to help writers reduce their use of noun chains.

Or:

The teacher uses an exercise to help writers cut out noun chains.

To get rid of noun chains, identify the noun completing the thought and put it up front.

In the first revision, look at the prepositions as and of. Notice the verbal phrase to reduce. They make up the cure to noun chains: verbs and prepositions. And put the thought-completing noun up front. Sometimes you’ll use more words, but you need them to produce a smooth and readable style.

Avoid the overwhelming urge to sound scholarly and invent acronyms out of noun chains. Recall the “scholarly” passage in the previous section:

SLIP, like VALP and ECC, is a defeasible constraint that is obeyed by all the types of head-nexus phrase considered thus far. It guarantees that (except in SLASH-binding contexts that we turn to in a moment) the SLASH value of a phrase is the SLASH value of its head-daughter.

If you’re not careful, the rest of us mortals out here in the real world will SLIP you a VALP and perhaps even SLASH your ECC.

So there.

Hard Copy

You may download our entire discussion of the Parts of Speech. Simply download the Grammar eBook Understanding the Parts of Speech.

 

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