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Is there a guideline or rule of thumb to assist in deciding whether to use an adjective or an attributive noun when expressing concepts, as seen in examples like "dental medicine" versus "teeth medicine" and "dog food" versus "canine food" in English?

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  • There's no absolute rule - but as it happens, your two examples illustrate a difference. Plural noun attribute teeth medicine is totally non-idiomatic, but in fact we're unlikely to use the "more valid" singular attributive noun form tooth medicine anyway (we use dental medicine, as that chart shows). But it's always dog food, not canine food (that one uses the attributive noun format). Commented Jan 28 at 14:20
  • Usually, there are expressions for which there isn't an adjective in higher-level registers. For example, we say information technology because there is no common adjective for information in that sense and because informative means something else. Being aware of that is important. Dog food and car door are not higher-level usages.
    – Lambie
    Commented Jan 28 at 16:38

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You are asking a question that sits on the boundary between style and usage. Consequently, any answer you get will, at least partially, reflect personal preferences about style.

With that caveat, I suggest that it will normally be more natural to modify a noun by an adjective, e.g. “spinal surgery” rather than “spine surgery.” There are two exceptions. One is when a noun-noun phrase has become a stock phrase, e.g. “dog food.” The other is when the required adjective is unlikely to be known by the intended audience. I suspect that is the reason behind “dog food”: even a small child or an illiterate will know what “dog” means, but may be bemused by “canine.”

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  • Thank you for your answer. On what evidence do you suggest that "spinal surgery" is more natural? books.google.com/ngrams/…
    – user184331
    Commented Jan 28 at 15:13

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