Noun Clusters

Subject: Noun Clusters
From: Dan Dieterich <ddieteri -at- UWSPMAIL -dot- UWSP -dot- EDU>
Date: Tue, 17 May 1994 08:57:55 -0600

Margaret asked:
>I find that engineers are very fond of writing long clusters of nouns.
>What do you generally do with them?

David replied:
>Well...theoretically it is not good English to build long noun modifier
>strings, but it is so common that they cause little, if any, confusion for
>most technical readers. Any way you could rephrase would be wordier and less
>clear -- really, they *do* comprehend it. But I *don't* give them a bunny
>rabbit sticker at the top of the page; I have my limits!

Dan adds: Withholding bunny rabbit stickers is cruel and unusual punishment!
But, you're right that unstringing noun strings inevitably makes for more
words. I don't agree that unstringing them makes matters less clear, however.
I find it usually makes things far more clear.

Long noun strings are so dense with meaning that people usually have a hard
time understanding them. To understand noun strings, you have to read them
backwards, i.e., from right to left. I know of no other time in the English
language when that happens.

For example, "voice and satelite communication related invoice processing" is
really about "the processing of invoices related to communication by satelite
and voice." Someone reading the original (stringed) version has to get to the
seventh word in the string before understanding what the whole thing means.
This means the person has to read six words, four of them nouns, before
getting to the real subject, the seventh word.

This isn't fatal in short strings, but it's asking a bit much to expect people
to wade through "quality control booklet review customer focus workshop
summary" (8 nouns) or "merit pay appraisal system research field test training
session" (9 nouns)--both from subject lines of memos. Yes, it takes more words
to say the same things in unstrung fashion, but putting the prepositions and
articles in betwixt the nouns clarifies matters wonderfully.


|| || || || |||||||| |||||||| Dan Dieterich
|| || || || || || || || Department of English and
|| || || || || |||||||| |||||||| Tutoring-Learning Center
|| || || || || || || Univ. of Wis.-Stevens Point
||||||||o ||||||||||o ||||||||o ||o ddieteri -at- uwspmail -dot- uwsp -dot- edu

"This spring, may you unfold and come up green again."

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