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The sentence

The user “John Smith” has been registered; go to the “User Profile” tab to view the user’s details.

reads more naturally to me than

The “John Smith” user has been registered; go to the tab “User Profile” to view the user’s details.

but I’m not sure why. In particular, it seems wrong for John Smith to go before the word user, whereas User Profile can go either before or after the word tab (although it seems to flow a little better when it’s before).

What rules of grammar apply here?

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I disagree with most of what Luke Baumgarten says.

In general you can use any noun phrase to modify another noun in English (I don't think it is helpful to say it is 'treated as an adjective'): the dog basket, a big city attitude (where big city, a noun modified with an adjective, is the modifying noun phrase).

Personal names are less often used in this way, though they can be; but when they are it is to characterise the head noun as a kind of object, not an individual associated with that name. So a Ben Sherman shirt is a kind of shirt produced by the Ben Sherman company, (or if you know a Ben Sherman who is known for wearing a particular kind of shirt, then people in your circle might refer to a shirt of that kind as a Ben Sherman shirt). But you would not say a Ben Sherman shirt to mean any shirt which happened to be Ben's (though you might if it was one of his characteristic shirts - because it is a Ben-kind-of shirt, not a belonging-to-Ben shirt). For this reason you would be unlikely to hear the John Smith user (though not impossible). To refer to the user who is (or the user account which is used by) the individual John Smith, it is much more usual to put the name in apposition, the user John Smith.

(Place names on the other hand are used in this way: London policemen are policemen from London, not (generally) London kind-of policemen).

The User Profile tab is a slightly different case because User profile does not represent an individual, so the meaning of a User-Profile-kind-of tab is the only one available. (The fact that there might be only one such tab in a particular application is not relevant: User Profile does not identify anything individually in the sense that John Smith does.) The User Profile tab means the tab which is of a User Profile kind; the tab "User Profile" means _the tab which is named "User Profile": there may not be much practical difference.

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I’m afraid I’m still confused. I understand the Ben Sherman shirt and London policemen examples, but the shirt isn’t named Ben Sherman and the policemen aren’t named London. Here, in contrast, John Smith and User Profile identify “which one”, not “what kind”. The user [named] “John Smith” has been registered; go to the tab [named] “User Profile”. Both John Smith and User Profile are names, so why can we swap the order of User Profile and tab but not John Smith and user? Are personal names just special? – Michael Liu May 26 '13 at 0:08

Because of the way we deal with names, even virtual ones, "User" and "John Smith" are both nouns. "Tab" is definitely a noun, but in this context, "User Profile" is not. It's an adjective.

Nouns can function as adjectives, which is where things get weird. And since "User" and "John Smith" are both nouns, it comes down to importance as to which we tend to treat as the noun in a sentence and which we treat as adjectives.

Proper names are prioritized in our culture, so it makes sense that you'd like the first construction better.

The "tab" clause is correct. The "user" clause fits better with our preference toward proper names.

Both "the user John Smith" and "the John Smith user" are technically correct, but as a matter of style the first version will trip fewer people up.

It just feels weird to make a proper noun like "John Smith" subordinate to a generic noun like "user"

Though you could also say: "John Smith, the user profile, has been registered." And that feels pretty natural.

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When you say that "User Profile" is an adjective "in this context" and that the "tab" clause is correct, are you referring to both sentences or just the first? – Michael Liu May 24 '13 at 18:51
In both examples, "User Profile" is an adjective and "tab" is a noun. The first example is the grammatically correct one. CORRECT: go to the “User Profile” tab to view the user’s details. INCORRECT: go to the tab “User Profile” to view the user’s details. ALSO CORRECT, but more wordy: go to the tab named "User Profile" to view the user's details – Luke Baumgarten May 24 '13 at 19:03

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