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date: 22 May 2018

Noun Plague

Garner’s Modern English Usage

Bryan A. Garner

Noun Plague 

is Wilson Follett's term for the piling up of nouns to modify other nouns (MAU at 229). When a sentence has more than two nouns in a row, it generally becomes much less readable. The following sentence is badly constructed because of the noun-upon-noun syndrome, which (sadly) is more common now than in Follett's day: “Consumers complained to their congressmen about the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's automobile seat belt ‘interlock’ rule.” One can hardly make it to the sentence end to discover that we’re talking about a rule. (Even worse, many writers today would leave off the possessive after Administration.) In the interest of plague control, the following rewrite is advisable: the ‘interlock’ rule applied to automotive seat belts by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. A few prepositional phrases and an adjective (automotive) do the job.

Readability typically plummets when three words that are ordinarily nouns follow in succession, although exceptions such as fidelity life insurance certainly exist. But the plague is unendurable when four nouns appear consecutively, as when writers refer to a ✳participation program principal category or the ✳retiree benefit explanation procedure. Occasionally one encounters even longer strings: in 1997, a major national bank circulated a form entitled Government Securities Dealership Customer Account Information Form—which might be something of a record.

It is true, of course, that noun-stacking really involves making all but the last noun into adjectives. But the problem is that many readers will think that they’ve hit upon the noun when they’re still reading adjectives. Hence a miscue occurs. For more on the use of nouns as adjectives, see functional variation (b).

Finally, it is worth cautioning against loading a single statement with too many abstract nouns ending in -tion. The effect isn't pleasing:

  • “Police must [study] . . . how to defuse volatile situations and how to instruct victims on prosecution and protection options the law provides.” Jim Nichols, “Domestic Violence Cases Soar in Medina,” Plain Dealer (Cleveland), 30 Dec. 1993, at B1.

  • “This work led to a consideration of additional important attributes of information and communication media within organizations.” Ralph H. Sprague, “Electronic Document Management,” MIS Q., Mar. 1995, at 29.

  • “All of the ‘classic’ assumptions that are at the basis of the terms ‘culture’ and ‘intercultural differences’ find expression in this intervention. That is why the situation at the Center is not a question of organizational change.” Micha Popper, “The Glorious Failure,” 33 J. Applied Behavioral Science 27 (1997).

For more on words ending in -tion, see zombie nouns. See also sound of prose.