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Which order is correct?

  1. National African weightlifting federations.
  2. African national weightlifting federations.
  3. African weightlifting national federations.
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Depends entirely on what you mean. – simchona Mar 9 '13 at 11:18
I erroneously marked this as a dupe earlier. Apologies for the confusion. – coleopterist Mar 9 '13 at 12:33
If there is such a thing as The African Nation, it's unlikely to have a national weightlifting federation. Or do you mean that among the African countries, some have national weightlifting federations? Or perhaps there is such a sport as African Weightlifting, and some nations have federations for this. Your question can be vastly improved by clarifying the intended meaning of the phrase we are supposed to choose. – Dominic Cronin Mar 9 '13 at 13:02
up vote 1 down vote accepted

Simchona comments wisely that there is not a simple answer to this question.

A point specific to this actual question is that there is no nation of Africa; African, unlike American, is not generally used to apply to a specific country. South Africans (or at least those who use the expression) have hijacked the term in African National Congress, which is a shortening of the original: 'Members founded the organization as the South African Native National Congress (SANNC) on 8 January 1912' (Wikipedia). So the juxtaposing of 'national' and 'African' is questionable in the first place - are we referring to all the nations in Africa, to some of them, or to the organisations / practices ... that are nation-wide in the various countries?

Here, the order of the two words can be used to clarify what is meant (which takes precedence over ersatz-rules):

African national weightlifting federations (ie the national weightlifting federations to be found in the relevant African nations).

National African weightlifting federations (this implies that there is a special form of, or continent-wide association of, weightlifting, and we're referring to the local (ie within the different countries of Africa) organisations.

Compare Mexico / Mexican national American football team (or indeed United States national American football team). National Mexican American football team would be disastrous!

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If you check with Wikipedia you would realize that the order in which prenominal adjectives and other modifiers of the noun are usually positioned is:

  1. Determiners — articles and other limiters.

  2. Observation — postdeterminers and limiter adjectives (e.g., a real hero, a perfect idiot) and adjectives subject to subjective measure (e.g., beautiful, interesting)

  3. Size and Shape — adjectives subject to objective measure (e.g., wealthy, large, round)

  4. Age — adjectives denoting age (e.g., young, old, new, ancient)

  5. Color — adjectives denoting color (e.g., red, black, pale)

  6. Origin — denominal adjectives denoting source of noun (e.g., French, American, Canadian)

  7. Material — denominal adjectives denoting what something is made of (e.g., woolen, metallic, wooden)

  8. Qualifier — final limiter, often regarded as part of the noun (e.g., rocking chair, hunting cabin, passenger car, book cover)

So the correct choice of expression would be "national African weightlifting federations". However, keep in mind that when it comes to naming something, a nation would tend to place its name at the start of the phrase, such as African National Congress, U.S. National Library of Medicine, etc.

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So you're saying that the OP should keep in mind that [the order claimed by] Wikipedia might tend to be unacceptable? – Edwin Ashworth Mar 9 '13 at 11:46
@EdwinAshworth It appears that when it comes to giving something a name a different order is applied. I'm not exactly sure about that though. But there are many examples out there that support this phenomenon. – nyan nyan nyan Mar 9 '13 at 14:33

National African weightlifting federations

The order of the adjectives in such matters has to do with specificity. With the above example consider the following questions:

  1. Are we talking about weightlifting federations? (These could be national, state-level, or African or American.)
  2. Are we talking about all African federations? (These could be federations for any sport: weightlifting, boxing, swimming, etc.)
  3. Are we talking about national federations? (Again, these could be for any sport, not just weightlifting.)

The answer to the above is most likely 1. This means that we are talking about weightlifting federations.

Now, comparing the other two adjectives:

  1. Are we talking about national weightlifting federations? (These could presumably be on any continent: Asia, Africa, Europe. etc.)
  2. Are we talking about African weightlifting federations? (Since the word African can represent both the demonym (people from Africa) or the continent itself, we have a slight ambiguity here. We could mean weightlifting federations involving African people or all the weightlifting federations on the African continent. The latter is complicated further by the fact that the African continent might have village, town, city, state, and national federations and this term will mean that all these types are included.)

Again, we are very likely to be talking about 1.

This implies that the proper order would be African National Weightlifting Federations. This would represent federations at a country level throughout the continent of Africa.

(That said, I'm not sure if the use of federations by the OP is intentional. The usual choice is simply federation which would be an umbrella term used to group together a cluster of constituent bodies.)

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