3

I always thought that I can join as many nouns as I want together and in fact make all of them play the role of adjectives except the last one. But the other day I was told that there is no such rule. However I can provide many examples:

  • a Michael Bay film
  • repetitive strain injury
  • blue-collar worker
  • maternity leave
  • air pollution
  • noise pollution
  • water pollution

These are correct collocations, aren't they? Certainly I can "A film of Michael Bay", but "a Michael Bay film" seems even more natural for me. Also we have air pollution, noise pollution, water pollution, but not environment pollution. Environmental pollution. Am I right? Can I say environment pollution? If no, why? And yet if there is such a rule that describes why I can say air pollution instead of pollution of air, how does it called?

11
  • It's not clear to me what you mean by "an arbitrary number of nouns". Do you mean "add many nouns one after the other so they all act as adjectives" or "use any arbitrary noun as an adjective"? You can certainly do the first; you could refer to a car door handle button, for example.
    – stangdon
    Mar 16, 2021 at 18:19
  • Sure - you can say environment pollution. But that's one of those cases where we usually choose to use the dedicated adjectival form environmental pollution. And English doesn't actually have an adjective meaning "of Michael Bay", but quite why we don't rail against airy pollution isn't that obvious to me. Mar 16, 2021 at 18:20
  • 1
    @stangdon You are only half way there: Ford car door handle button replacement cost inflation estimate Mar 16, 2021 at 18:46
  • @stangdon; But don't forget it should be a "useful big round broken old red spotted Chinese steel car door handle button"
    – Brad
    Mar 17, 2021 at 1:49
  • @stangdon yes. The first one. "add many nouns one after the other so they all act as adjectives"
    – TheCrilon
    Mar 17, 2021 at 5:41

1 Answer 1

4

According to the rules of English grammar, you can make infinitely long sequences of noun adjuncts.

Your examples are idiomatic, and could even be lengthened by adding more attributive nouns:

  • a Michael Bay film festival
  • a Michael Bay film watching party
  • a Michael Bay blockbuster film watching party
  • a Michael Bay blockbuster film watching party analysis

As you can probably see, when the phrases get longer, they're more likely to be misunderstood. In that last example, you have to read eight words before you discover what kind of activity is being described (an analysis, not a party, or a film, or a film maker).

While the language's grammar permits such phrases, they tend to be rare because there are usually better ways of conveying the same information. For example, this is a headline that was published by BBC News: "Dawlish pub car park cliff plunge man rescued." That sentences uses six nouns that all modify "man." Newspapers like this kind of phrasing because it's compact, but for normal speech, it would be much preferred to say, "Emergency medical technicians rescued a man whose car plunged off of the cliff at the edge of a Dawlish pub's parking lot."

Knowing the "rule" - that you can chain together attributive nouns - is helpful, but whatever rule exists cannot tell you whether a specific attributive noun chain is idiomatic. As we've seen, length is one consideration, but there's no rule about that - often times a single attributive noun is less idiomatic than the adjectival version. For example, "spine surgery" is more common than "spinal surgery," but "spine cord" is so uncommon, it will sound wrong (it's "spinal cord").

Unfortunately, the only way to know which phrasing is "correct" is to listen to and read a lot of English.

2
  • Noun adjunct or attributive nouns, that is the name of the grammar construction that I've been casting about for! And thank you for explaining this "spine surgery"/"spinal cord".
    – TheCrilon
    Mar 17, 2021 at 9:08
  • 1
    The six nouns in "Dawlish pub car park cliff plunge" don't individually modify "man". There are several layers of modification involved: first "plunge" is modified by "cliff" to form the nominal "cliff plunge". Similarly, "car park" forms a nominal which is modified by the nominal "Dawlish pub" to give the nominal “Dawlish pub car park”. The nominal "Dawlish pub car park” then modifies “cliff plunge" and finally the upper nominal “Dawlish pub car park cliff plunge” modifies “man”. I think!!
    – BillJ
    Mar 17, 2021 at 11:46

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .