Talking to a colleague who is more skilled than me in English I asked this:

can you provide information about the bear out term origin?

and he said I should have written:

Can you provide information about the origin of the term 'bear out'?

I agree his way is better, but I can't see technically/grammatically what is wrong with my writings. my version includes a noun phrase: "bear out term origin".

and my colleague's version removes it. SO I can only think he is saying that my noun phrase is incorrect. But I can't see that as incorrect, is it?

  • It's vague semantically.There is a chance of misinterpretation of your version of writing.
    – Sam
    Commented Jul 16, 2023 at 15:08
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    It's wrong because 'we don't say it that way'. We talk about the word 'XXX' rather than the XXX word - similarly with term, phrase etc. Commented Jul 16, 2023 at 15:12
  • @Sam, can you show me please one example of misinterpretation in this case? I can't see one Commented Jul 16, 2023 at 21:15
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    …This is probably one reason why English doesn't tend to jam lots of nouns together: the result is hard to parse and often very ambiguous. Another issue is that English tends to distinguish a reference to a word in itself from a usage of the word. Compare for example: 1) Let's look at the word ‘angrily’. 2) Let's look at the word angrily. The former invites us to consider dispassionately a given word; the latter to become annoyed by some previously-mentioned word. The punctuation makes all the difference! So using bear out with no punctuation is very misleading.
    – gidds
    Commented Jul 16, 2023 at 23:33
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    It isn’t so much that it’s easy to mis-interpret, more that the original is very hard to make any sense of at all. It ends up being a garden path sentence: you see ‘about the bear’ and you immediately think about the animal. Then you see ‘out’ and you expect a prepositional phrase (‘the bear out in the mountains’, for instance)… and then suddenly you’re hit with the noun phrase ‘term origin’, which makes no sense at all here, so you’re puzzled. Commented Jul 17, 2023 at 9:13

1 Answer 1


There's a couple problems.

The first is that in English, if we're talking about a word/phrase/term etc., we just say the word itself, "bear out", rather than "the bear out term". If we want to make it clear we're talking about a term, we say the type first, like, 'the term "bear out"', not the other way around, and with quotation marks around the term itself.

The other issue is that we don't say 'the term "bear out" origin' like a compound noun, but 'the origin of "bear out"', or less commonly, '"bear out"'s origin'. We have to indicate with "'s" or "of" that the origin is a component of "bear out".

In English compound nouns, the first noun always modifies the second, and it describes the type of noun it is. Consider "soup spoon" and "door handle". "Soup" and "door" indicate what type of spoon and handle. So, "The bear out term" literally means that "bear out" is a type of term, and "the bear out term origin" literally means that "the bear out term" is a type of origin, neither of which makes any sense. The context of your sentence requires indicating possession, not type, so we can't use compound nouns in this context.

So, the one your colleague gave you is the best form, and a less good but acceptable version is:

Can you provide information about (the term) "bear out"'s origin?

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    @karensapapaulina Because in English, 'nested' concepts tend to be represented by a series of adjectives (or forms/phrases used as adjectives) modifying a single, 'root' noun, instead of as long compound nouns. For example, you'd say 'Bob's neighbor's garbage can tipped over,' not 'Bob-neighbor-garbage-can tipped over.' The possessive case ('s) makes a noun function as an adjective; using 'of' has the same function (as in 'the garbage can of Bob's neighbor,' although this is less idiomatic here!). Often, one or the other ('of' or possessive case) will fit better in a given context. Commented Jul 16, 2023 at 21:56
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    @karensapapaulina There is no single, one-size-fits-all rule for why some relations are expressible as compounds and others aren’t. But the fact remains that they are (and aren’t). We can say ‘the origin of the term’ or ‘the term’s origin’, but in most cases not ‘?the term origin’ – the compound doesn’t work. Conversely, we can say ‘the tap water’ and ‘the tennis shoes’, but absolutely never ‘*the water of the tap/*the shoes of (the?) tennis’ or ‘*the tap’s water/*(the?) tennis’s shoes’ – only the compounds work. Commented Jul 17, 2023 at 9:21
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    It is, however, a hard and fast rule that appositions always come after the noun they describe. So it is always ‘the term bear out’, ‘the name Jonathan’, ‘president Bush’, ‘the ship Lusitania’, ‘the singer Harry Styles’, ‘my sister Alice’, etc. We never, ever say ‘*the bear out term’, ‘*the Jonathan name’, ‘*Bush president’, ‘*the Lusitania ship’, ‘*the Harry Styles singer’, ‘*my Alice sister’. The apposition would end up modifying the noun instead: ‘the U2 singer’ means ‘the singer in the band U2 (=Bono)’, not ‘the singer called U2’. Commented Jul 17, 2023 at 9:30
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    @karensapapaulina Great question. I've added a paragraph about how compound nouns work in general in English, and specifically to this case.
    – gotube
    Commented Jul 17, 2023 at 20:34
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    @JanusBahsJacquet I've added a paragraph with the rule about compound nouns that applies here.
    – gotube
    Commented Jul 17, 2023 at 20:48

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