I very often come across different words which I need to use as nouns or as adjectives. For some words I can look up in a dictionary whether they can be an adjectives or not. But many of them are not in general use and cannot be looked up in a dictionary. Let's take a word document as an example.

For me it feels like it is ok to say either:

document location


document's location

in the first case we use the word document as an adjective, but in the second case as a noun in a possessive case. Can I use the first approach for any noun which is not proper noun? Or must we use possessive case? Where can I read more about it?

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    This is not really using a noun as an adjective, this is an attributive noun. Search for "attributive noun" in your favorite grammar resource (or follow the link I've given) if you want to read more about this. Dec 6, 2021 at 19:37
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    There is also a nice little paragraph on the topic with some examples at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Noun_adjunct (section: "Use when an adjectivally inflected alternative is available"). Dec 6, 2021 at 21:21
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    @Canadian Yankee: Why do you answer the question completely in a comment (including a reference) and leave the question unanswered? Why not post your answer instead? Mar 27, 2022 at 20:26

2 Answers 2


In your example "document location", "document" is, as user Canadian Yankee said, an attributive noun. The two constructions you mention, attributive noun and possessive, are both valid, but their usages are different. Whether a construction is valid or not depends on what you mean, rather than on which nouns you use.

The attributive noun construct has many usages, but it is not the appropriate construct for possessives. A shop selling supplies for pets might sell dog bowls [attributive]. These are bowls intended for dogs to use. If you buy one for your dog, it is then your dog's bowl [possessive] because your dog possesses it. So you see, both constructs are valid for the very same pair of nouns.

I'm afraid I don't know what exactly you mean by "document location" and therefore what difference you want to make, between that and "document's location". Perhaps "Document Location" is the label of some part of a form or a table in a database? If so, then it bears saying that, in situations like these, we sometimes leave out some unimportant words. For example such a label might be "Document Location", where in normal speech we might ask about the document's location.


The first example is a case of a noun functioning to modify another noun. This is technically known as an attributive noun. Almost any noun may be used in this way, nor is this a new feature of English grammar. It is, however, becoming more common in recent decades.

Some nouns are more frequently used as attributive nouns, and those are marked as attrib in some dictionaries.

Sometimes an attributive noun uses the genitive form, so that it looks like a possessive. For example:

Such a state is often kn own as a "people's republic."

Here "people" is used as an attributive noun, not a possessive. If one can rephrase the sentence with "for" or "of" after the apparently possessive noun, it may well be in fact an attributive. The line between and attributive and a possessive is fuzzy, and grammarians may disagree on particular cases. It also does not matter much for usage or meaning.

An attributive nouns always occurs imm ediantly6 before the noun being modified, except that when several nouns occur one after the other, each serving as a modifier, in some cases it might be that all nound modify the last one. Such a string is sometimes called a noun cluster.

For example in the noun cluster

fallout survival shelter

each noun modifies the one right after it. But in the cluster:

adult Springer spaniel

both "adult" and "Springer" modify "spaniel".

See "Attributive Nouns in Grammar" from Thought Co for more on this, as well as various sources mentioned in comments.

The Thought Co page states:

Home, for example, may function as a noun ('This is our home'), as an adjective ('Taste our home cooking'), or as an adverb ('We went home'). Because nouns may function as adjectives (the technical term for a noun that modifies a subsequent noun is attributive noun), 'government offices' is as correct as—and many would say preferable to—'governmental offices.'

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