The UVic Writer's Guide

Noun Strings

A useful feature of the English language is that a noun can be used as an adjective, providing information about another noun. Thus the noun "house" can be used to describe a kind of boat--houseboat--and the noun "boat" can be used to describe a kind of house--boathouse. These examples have become so familiar that they have been made into compound words.

But the ability of English to link nouns in this way can lead to ambiguous and turgid writing. For example, a headline that reads "Woman Killer At Large" could refer to either a killer of women or a woman who kills.

English even allows a whole group of nouns to be strung together, but the longer the string, the longer it takes a reader unfamiliar with the term to figure it out. Noun strings are often found in newspaper headlines where space is at a premium ("Car Insurance Firm Secret Sale Shock Probe") and technical manuals ("put the wing sprocket flange grommet over the side frame angle bracket lever").

Noun strings are a major component of jargon: "computer systems analyst," "human resource development project newsletter deadline," "health information science" (until you know what it is about, it is unclear whether it deals with "the health of information-science" or "the science of health-information"). The simple way to avoid noun strings is to separate the nouns by appropriate prepositions.

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Copyright, The Department of English, University of Victoria, 1995
This page updated September 21, 1995