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Criminal is an adjective and story is a noun. Why is "crime story" used instead of "criminal story"? While both crime and story are nouns. What's this latter combination?

Is "criminal story" even correct?

  • The complex answers below are interesting, however, I would digress and point out the it's simply easier to say "crime story" since it's only 2 syllables. Word shortening and phrase shortening are a fact of life. I contend that even if the common phrase were to be "criminal story" that, over time, it would probably become "crime story". The easier a phrase rolls off the tongue, the more likely it is to stick in culture. – MikeM Oct 30 '15 at 19:30
  • @Michael.M Thanks. I see what you're saying, But I thought there would be some societies that protect rules of the language and prevent unfounded changes. Such as Académie française which is for french. – flower Oct 30 '15 at 19:52
  • I don't believe you'll find any such dictatorship in English cultures. Even the Oxford English Dictionary, which touts itself as "The definitive record of the English language" acknowledges new and un-traditional terms such as "lol". Actually English is described as a mongrel language because it lacks such formal protections, but instead borrows, to it's own pleasure, from everywhere else and is very adaptive in that way. – MikeM Oct 30 '15 at 20:37
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"Criminal" means "against the law", like "criminal behaviour", "criminal organisation", "criminal enterprise", and so on.

The story is not against the law, the story is about a crime, so it's a crime story, not a criminal story.


Compare the difference in meaning between "a wooden shed" and "a wood shed". The former is a shed made of wood, the latter is a shed where wood is kept.

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    Or a love story as opposed to a loving story. – Deepak Oct 29 '15 at 1:12
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    Crime law, or Criminal law? – brian_o Oct 29 '15 at 5:36
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    @brian_o - no one said English makes sense :D – Davor Oct 29 '15 at 11:28
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    Logic and grammar will only get you so far. In many cases, you cannot formulate a rule, but I fear this answer does. The following is incorrect: The trial is not against the law, the trial is about a crime, so it's a crime trial, not a criminal trial. – brian_o Oct 29 '15 at 14:35
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    @brian_o, noone said lawyers were good with English. And besides, all lawyers are crooked so in a way it is criminal law. – Octopus Oct 29 '15 at 21:25
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A crime story is a story about a crime.

A criminal story would be a story about a criminal.

Typically speaking, books written in this genre tend to be centered around the crime. They will sometimes get into the criminal's life, but they equally get into the lives of other characters, especially the crime solver.

If one were to write a book and label it as a "criminal story," it would be a story about a criminal, or criminals in general. It might cover life as a criminal, with all the trust challenges that come with that life. It may include crimes, but the individual crimes would be less important than the life of the criminal.

I am unaware of any story that sells itself as a "criminal story," but if one existed, that is what I would expect to see, as a native English speaker trying to make sense of a pair of words.

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    The meaning of "criminal story" you have in mind (which I've never heard before, by the way) is another compound noun, much like "crime story", because you made it a story about "a criminal" (noun). I think the OP expected the first word to be an adjective rather than a noun. – David K Oct 29 '15 at 7:40
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    I'd be happy to know if this interpretation of Criminal story is your personal viewpoint or would be the same for other native English speakers? By the way, as @DavidK said, I assumed the criminal to be an adjective. – flower Oct 29 '15 at 22:38
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    @flower I tried to point out that it was my own viewpoint on what an English speaker would do if presented with those two words put next to each other. I don't know if it helped to present my viewpoint, or hurt. Sometimes you just want to hear "you should have said X," and sometimes you need to hear "you should have said X. If you said Y, here's what I would have thought you said." Actually, probably the most defining characteristic of a "criminal story" would be that it isn't just a "crime story." English speakers may use modified constructions to try to distinguish their work... – Cort Ammon Oct 29 '15 at 22:53
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    ... so the mere use of an unusual construction usually begs for further clarification. It might be, as I viewed it, "Oh no, this isn't a crime story. This is a criminal story. It really tries to get into the mind of the criminal." or it might be "Oh no, this isn't a crime story. This is a criminal story. We only see the crime from the criminal's perspective." Or, if you treat the word as an adjective, it might be as simple as "This story was so bad, and did so much damage to the genre with its horrible prortrayals that it's positively criminal." – Cort Ammon Oct 29 '15 at 22:57
  • @CortAmmon: I would think the distinction between crime story and criminal story would depend upon whether it focused upon aspects of the criminal's life outside of the crimes in which he was involved. – supercat Oct 29 '15 at 23:09
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Crime story is a compound noun made of two base nouns. I think you were expecting an adjective-noun pair, but that's not how we express this idea in English.

Similar constructions from the linked source include "post office" and "fish tank".

"Criminal story" is not an immediately meaningful combination. We just don't use it that way, but sometimes we use similarly constructed phrases. A criminal trial is a trial about a crime, not a trial conducted in an illegal manner. Why can we say "criminal trial" and not "criminal story"? Unclear, but it may be because of the word "story". When naming genres, we seem to prefer compound nouns: "adventure story", "romance story", etc.

  • @DavidK Yes, but in "criminal sanction", the word "criminal" actually is an adjective modifying the noun "sanction": but it does not describe a sanction that's so bad, it's criminal. – brian_o Oct 29 '15 at 16:20
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    If English language learners ask: "criminal story" or "crime story", I can tell them which phrase is actually used. I can also tell them that one is an adjective-noun pair while the other is a compound noun. What I cannot do is explain why one "makes sense" while the other does not. – brian_o Oct 29 '15 at 16:27
  • OK, I was being a bit facetious with the "so bad, it's criminal." Nobody actually used that phrase (I think it's slang, actually) when naming legal concepts. Notice, though, how many of these uses of "criminal" as an adjective come from the actual practice of law. I don't think there's much use for works of popular fiction in that context. – David K Oct 29 '15 at 17:05
  • Please do remove "criminal trespass" because it completely weakens your statements. – ErikE Oct 29 '15 at 20:41
  • @ErikE How does it weaken my point? Contrast "criminal trespass" and "criminal trial". Both are adjective-noun pairs, but the adjective "criminal" means something different. In the first, "criminal" means "illegal", whereas in the second, "criminal" means "crime-focused". My point is that the meaning is inconsistent; in order to use the proper phrase, you just have to know. You can't use logic to arrive at the proper usage. – brian_o Oct 29 '15 at 21:12
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While writing a comment, I figured I should probably write it as an answer.

As brian_o said in his answer, crime story is a compound noun. Generally a compound noun is used to describe a more specific version of something. A post office is an office for post, a wood shed is a shed for wood, a crime story is a story about crime.

The main issue is that the word criminal has an adjective usage and a noun usage. So logically criminal story is just as correct as crime story. In usage, crime story is considered "correct" as it is the common usage.

  • Beside compound nouns which stand for a specific type of something (as you pointed); Aren't other combinations of two nouns just "genitive cases"? If yes, as I mentioned in comments for brian_o; Shouldn't it be "noun + of + noun"? In the viewpoint of the language rules. (Or maybe rules of the language) – flower Oct 30 '15 at 20:09
  • It could be constructed with of by saying "the story of a crime", but to a native speaker "story about a crime" sounds better. – Jake Oct 30 '15 at 20:32
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    I wouldn't encourage you to think of all compound nouns as just "genitive." Sometimes that mental model might work, but I think it fails in other cases. For instance, a rain garden isn't really a garden of rain. – brian_o Oct 30 '15 at 20:37
  • @brian_o I excepted compound nouns in the first comment as a combination which identifies a certain version of something. Doesn't a rain of garden identify a special garden, even if it's fictional? – flower Oct 30 '15 at 20:46

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