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I've recently run into some sticky situations involving how to write out complicated concept descriptions. Take this example:

Which metrics are appropriate for evaluating the accuracy of a prediction of difficulty level?

My visceral response is that the nested prepositions ("for...of...of") bog down the reader. One option is to wrap one of the prepositional phrases into a hyphenated adjectival phrase:

Which metrics are appropriate for evaluating the accuracy of a difficulty-level prediction?

If I wanted to compress this even more, I could fold in another prepositional phrase:

Which metrics are appropriate when evaluating difficulty-level-prediction accuracy?

Unfortunately, these hyphenated cases look ugly and are arguably (especially in the 3rd case) as hard or harder to understand than the original sentence. Have any style guides or other sources justified using nested prepositional phrases over hyphenated adjectival phrases, or vice versa?

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It depends on the context. Is prediction the focus? Is difficulty the focus? Or is it the difficulty level? Each of the variants you provided has its own semantic significance. They do not mean the same, unless it doesn't matter what the subtle difference is, to the context. ExSum: Use the structure appropriate to the need -- no one option is 'preferable.' –  Kris May 1 '13 at 5:31
Would you say that words stuck into the hyphenated adjectival phrase "stand out" less? For example, if I wanted to highlight that it's the accuracy of the prediction (the specific kind of prediction being the prediction of difficulty level, but that's understood based on previous contents), would the construction accuracy of a difficulty-level prediction best do that? –  Caedar May 2 '13 at 0:39
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1 Answer

At bottom your problem isn't too many prepositional phrases - it's too many nouns.

Nominalization has been the bane of "scientific" style since the heyday of positivism: nouns, 'things', are somehow regarded as having more 'reality' than verbs or adjectives, even when the 'things' are just syntactical transformations of the deprecated 'actions' and 'qualities'.

Turn some of those gratuitous nominalizations into verbs or adverbs or adjectives and the problem goes away:

What metrics are appropriate for evaluating how accurately a difficulty level has been predicted?

Liberate yourself from hegemonic nominals.

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Hegemony of nouns. –  Edwin Ashworth Apr 30 '13 at 22:00
As Edwin said, you mean hegemony of nouns not nominal hegemony -- I see that you've not edited the sentence. –  Kris May 2 '13 at 6:22
@Kris: It was a joke, hegemonic nominals is fine (barely any change in meaning). @ Stoney: Well said! This phenomenon may be part of the primitive notion "one thought is one word", which also leads to our many single-word requests. Another thing: the deeper-lying problem of information overload is partly to blame for this as well; people sometimes forget that information can and should be cut up and presented in several sentences or clauses. For example: This method attempts to predict how difficult the test will be; what metrics should be used to evaluate the accuracy of the prediction? –  Cerberus May 2 '13 at 12:03
@StoneyB: So am I—oh, wait... –  Cerberus May 3 '13 at 2:45
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