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I ran into a grammatical construction which I don't know how to interpret. What confuses me even more is that, after extensive googling, I found none other confused by it, except one person who's question got downvoted (https://english.stackexchange.com/questions/259980/how-to-interpret-and-adjective-followed-by-two-nouns).

Even worst, I have an adjective and three nouns, let say main plugin file line. So if one has adjective+noun1+noun2+noun3 without clear meaning - which noun is modified with this adjective? Is it main line? Main plugin? Main file? Is there any such grammatical rule at all or is it just poor wording not covered by such?

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In regular written prose and conversational speech you would not normally encounter such a construct and it would very likely be a candidate for rewriting to remove such potential ambiguity. However, it can often occur in technical situations, particularly when computer programmers or specialised engineers are involved. If I wrote it as a piece of code it might become clearer, both what is intended, and why, perhaps, you might see it in manuals or computer interactions:

WriteLine("Please input the main plugin file line: ");
ReadLine (main->plugin->file->line);

It would be better described as "The line of the file that we use for the plugin of the main component..", for example. I suspect that you would never see that form of sentence used, and hence the compounding of the nouns. A phenomena that occurs in Engineering is to replace the compound sequence of nouns by an acronym or abbreviation, which then reduces the sentences to containing a new artificially constructed noun. This occurs with high frequency in aerospace system, for example. This is what gives us things like a LEM (Lunar Excursion Module), EVA (Extra Vehicular Activity) etc.

We can them avoid ambiguity in questions like: "What is the length of the extra vehicular activity". We no longer have to decide if we are asked about the extra length, the vehicle length or the activity length.

One could say it is a result of not having the German form on compound nouns!

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There is a clear grammar rule for this situation. I'm not as familiar with the phrase "main plugin file line," but it sounds like a noun string. Noun strings that cannot be separated (because the complete meaning would be lacking) are considered units. Therefore, "main" describes the whole unit of "plugin file line."

You can decide whether this is one of those strings that cannot be separated by asking yourself...Does "plugin," by itself, sufficiently describe the item? Does "plugin file" sufficiently describe it? OR Do I really need all three words to adequately describe this item?

If the answer to the last question is "yes," you have an adjective modifying the three-word string.

  • I'm not sure if you meant there IS a clear grammar rule or there is NOT a clear grammar rule, and I don't think that "main" necessarily describes "plugin file line". For example, the phrase "front door lock" clearly means "the lock for the front door" not "the door lock that is in front". – stangdon Jan 1 '16 at 22:46
  • @stangdon I did mean what I wrote...There IS a clear rule, and the rule is as I stated throughout the answer. In your example, "front door lock" is the string (the string/unit does not necessarily have to be all nouns, by the way). If you added, "the small front door lock," you would be describing the lock. However, not just any lock - a door lock. Then, not just any door lock - the front door lock is the lock that is small, as opposed to the back door lock or your bicycle lock. – KittyConsultant Jan 2 '16 at 0:09
  • If this rule is so clear, how would you request a line of the main plugin file? Or a file line of the main plugin? – The Photon Jan 2 '16 at 3:20
  • @ThePhoton I wouldn't request it.😊 – KittyConsultant Jan 2 '16 at 4:29

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