Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The Noun Plague

Over the years, I've written about bad writing, especially in headlines. One particular way that it goes awry is when the words chosen can be either a noun or a verb, depending on context.

Brian Garner's email, Usage Tip of the Day, recently explained another way that writing can go wrong: stacking up too many nouns in a row. He titled it the 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.
I've always thought there was something wrong with my reading skills when I had trouble understanding bureaucratese, but now I know it's because there are too many nouns in a row.

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