Garner’s Usage Tip of the Day: Noun Plague.

Noun Plague. This is Wilson Follett’s term for the piling up of nouns to modify other nouns (Modern American Usage 229 (1966)). When a sentence has more than two nouns in a row, it generally becomes much less readable. The following sentence is badly constructed because of the noun-upon-noun syndrome, which (sadly) is more common now than in Follett’s day: “Consumers complained to their congressmen about the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s automobile seat belt ‘interlock’ rule.” One can hardly make it to the sentence end to discover that we’re talking about a rule. (Even worse, many writers today would leave off the possessive after “Administration.”) In the interest of plague control, the following rewrite is advisable: “the ‘interlock’ rule applied to automotive seat belts by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.” A few prepositional phrases and an adjective (“automotive”) do the job. Readability typically plummets when three words that are ordinarily nouns follow in succession, although exceptions such as “fidelity life insurance” certainly exist. But the plague is unendurable when four nouns appear consecutively, as when writers refer to a *”participation program principal category” or the *”retiree benefit explanation procedure.” Occasionally one encounters even longer strings: in 1997, a major national bank circulated a form entitled “Government Securities Dealership Customer Account Information Form” — which might be something of a record. It is true, of course, that noun-stacking really involves making all but the last noun into adjectives. But the problem is that many readers will think that they’ve hit upon the noun when they’re still reading adjectives. Hence a miscue occurs. Finally, it is worth cautioning against loading a single statement with too many abstract nouns ending in “-tion.” The effect isn’t pleasing: “This work led to a consideration of additional important attributes of information and communication media within organizations.” Ralph H. Sprague, “Electronic Document Management,” MIS Q., Mar. 1995, at 29. *Invariably inferior forms. For more information about the Language-Change Index click here. Quotation of the Day: “Talkative shallow men doe often content the Hearers, more then the wise.” Ben Jonson, Timber, or Discoveries (1641), in Classics in Composition 43, 61 (Donald E. Hayden ed., 1969).
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