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A native English speaker told me rhat I should say “in times of upheaval” instead of “in upheaval times”. Now that confused me since I know that nouns can act as adjectives such as door-key, fire alarm, bed sheets…etc

Why can’t we use the noun “upheaval” as an adjective to describe another noun “times”?

Are there any nouns which cannot act as adjectives?

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    Following the pattern of wartime, peacetime, I think it would be upheaval-time anyway, if such a term was idiomatic. But it's not. Nor are drought-time, plenty-time, crisis-time,... But harvest time is well established (as are harvest mouse and harvest festival). Commented Jul 3 at 2:36
  • "In upheaval times" sounds awkward to me. With the general use of "times" it's normal to use "times of" ("times of strife", "times of uncertainty"), even if there are a lot of singular expressions for specific, clearly demarcated times like "dinner time", "wartime". Also, in general, the longer a word the more ungainly and confusing it is to use it before a noun, and "upheaval" with three syllables is getting awkward, plus the two prepositions at the start are a bit confusing.
    – Stuart F
    Commented Jul 3 at 9:22
  • Thank you very much
    – Asim
    Commented Jul 4 at 21:27

2 Answers 2

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Though the construction with the attributive noun has a match in Spartacus: 73 v. Chr. - Page 124, it is so rare that it is not even registered in Ngram. This Ngram is able to plot only in times of upheaval but not in upheaval times.

Thoughtco says it has always been legal in English to use one noun to modify another noun, and I used to like such constructions as they help me save a preposition. Arising from a recent comment, very rightly said, I have reduced such use.

I would say both forms are valid in the OP's example, but try to follow the more common usage where possible, that is, use the form in times of upheaval.

Edit

My answer to

Why can’t we use the noun “upheaval” as an adjective to describe another noun “times”?

is that we can, but we just don't usually do so if the usage is rare or awkward sounding, which commonly means harder to understand.

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  • There's an important point here. OP says "Why can't we?" Thoughtco says "It's legal." So the answer is "We can... we just don't usually!" Many things are "legal" but uncommon. There are no "grammar police"; the only thing stopping anyone from saying anything is the desire to be clearly understood. Commented Jul 3 at 13:53
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    Thanks, @Andy Bonner. Agreed. I’ve added more points to my answer. Commented Jul 4 at 9:05
  • Thanks a lot guys for the detailed answers :) I really appreciate the explanation @SeowjoohengSingapore
    – Asim
    Commented Jul 4 at 21:26
  • Thanks a lot @AndyBonner
    – Asim
    Commented Jul 4 at 21:26
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upheaval times is grammatical but stylistically clumsy.

The clumsiness stems in large part from the fact that the noun upheaval is formed from the verb heave up and the latinate suffix -al which turns verbs into quasi-abstract nouns (a heaving up) and for that reason the word has not been used as an attributive premodifier.

It's like saying "He made a construal attempt" instead of "He attempted to construe the sentence".

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  • Thank you very much @TimR
    – Asim
    Commented Jul 4 at 21:27

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