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When writing technical articles, I often have issues with the word order in the following situations:

  • The color red.
  • The .jpg extension.
  • The variable foo.
  • The "Further Notes" section.
  • The movie "Titanic".
  • The hello function.

When I try to change the order, sometimes I find it weird, sometimes not... How is this construction called? Is there a consistent rule? When to use one over the other? Thanks.

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    See ell.stackexchange.com/q/296134/138287, though my answer there is not very good... Aug 31, 2021 at 21:01
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    @AndyBonner I think the rule is: if it's the name/title that identifies the thing (like my brother Jake), and not an adjective that qualifies the thing, it goes after. This post ell.stackexchange.com/questions/39737 about "the red color" vs "the color red" is interesting. The first one is pointing to a color that is in the family of reds (the red-ish color among others), the second is pointing to the color identified as / named "red". To keep the first order, I would add: "I like red as a color", or "I like the color named red". Aug 31, 2021 at 21:50
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    More flavors of the same question so we are all on the same boat (you can see these linked questions in the right sidebar): ell.stackexchange.com/questions/162569 ell.stackexchange.com/questions/154529 ell.stackexchange.com/questions/187038 ell.stackexchange.com/questions/59385 ell.stackexchange.com/questions/138587 Aug 31, 2021 at 22:02
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    @nelly_the_jelly re: buttons — in that instance I'd normally opt with the first, if the button text is short — Press the "OK" button. Press the "Cancel" button. If it's something long I'd probably add in a 'helper' word, e.g: "Press the button labelled 'I understand the risks'". "Enter your purchase order number in the text titled 'Other notes related to your query'". Not that without the words "labelled" or "titled" it's incorrect, I just find it flows better as a sentence Sep 1, 2021 at 13:32
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    @anotherdave I agree with short and descriptive names placed before the category. "Press the 'Cancel' button" is at the same time: - Press the cancel button. - Press the button named "Cancel" or Press "Cancel" as a button. For more complicated names, I also agree that putting some filler words can make the sentence clearer. Sep 1, 2021 at 14:30

2 Answers 2

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I think you've hit the nail on the head in the comments. (By the way, let's note that this discussion is entirely about the order of pairs of nouns. If one of the words is an adjective, there's no question the adjective comes first in English. In "the color red," "red" is a noun, but in "the red color," it's an adjective, just like "the red car.")

To help clarify, these constructions have a "category" and an "instance" of a thing in that category. So in "the movie Titanic," the category is "movie" and the instance is "Titanic." Similarly, "variable" is the category and "foo" is the instance.

I think you've hit on the answer: what makes the difference is the degree to which the "instance" can work as an identifier on its own—a name, a title, a proper or "proper-ish" noun. Could you leave the "category" word out of your sentence and still be understood? If so, the category should probably come first. "Let's watch the movie Titanic" could equate to "Let's watch Titanic," with little need even to establish the context of movies. As the answer about Die Hard shows, when the instance really is a true proper noun (a unique title, etc.), putting the category second changes the meaning (making the instance work like an adjective).

Many of your examples could go either way, but the order could give a slight alteration in emphasis. For "file extension" and ".jpg," I might put the category first if the emphasis was on jpg: "Filter for the file extensions '.jpg' and '.png.'" But the reverse if the emphasis is on "file extension": "Don't confuse the 'jpg' folder with the 'jpg' file extension." Similarly, say I have a script named "setup." If I say, out loud, "Run the setup script," I could be using "setup" as an adjective and the script might actually be named "init_setup." But if I say "Run the script 'setup,'" I'm clearly using its name.

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    I like your answer, thanks! "Run the setup script" feels natural because the name is well chosen so it also describes the role of the script. A more complicated (or undescriptive) name would go after: "Run the setup script ~/bin/1337_setup.sh" like "The variable X". There are still some contexts in which it feels slightly odd to me, but the more I see it, the more natural it becomes. :) Sep 1, 2021 at 14:34
  • This discussion reminds me of nominal vs structural typing in programming languages: in ’The movie Star Wars is great’, Star Wars is a name of the movie (nominal), whereas in ’The Star Wars movie is great’, Star Wars is a property of the movie (structural).
    – Géry Ogam
    May 2, 2023 at 15:58
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Nouns go

  • before when they act as modifiers (e.g. ’the ice cream’, ’the olive oil’, ’the baby mama’, ’the office manager’), so they cannot be removed;
  • after when they act as identifiers (e.g. ’the singer Elvis Presley’, ‘the variable x’, ’the button Sign up for the digest’, ’the path /usr/bin/env’), so the nouns before can be removed.

Some nouns can act as both (e.g. ’the Star Wars movie’ and ’the movie Star Wars’, ’the Karen customer’ and ’the customer Karen’, ’the About section’ and ’the section About’, ’the HOME environment variable’ and ’the environment variable HOME’, ‘the print function’ and ‘the function print’, ’the package.json file’ and ’the file package.json’, ’the --help command-line option’ and ’the command-line option --help’, ‘the GET method’ and ‘the method GET’, ‘the 200 (OK) status code’ and ‘the status code 200 (OK)’, ’the Host header field’ and ’the header field Host’).

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