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Can a noun phrase have an adjective in the middle as in the following examples?

  1. car new tires
  2. salad high-calorie dressing
  3. house external wall
  4. nitrogen fine droplets

These examples seem ungrammatical to me, but the writer (who is not a native speaker of English) says that bringing the adjective to the front of the noun phrase would be incorrect, because, for example, in number 4, the droplets are fine, not the nitrogen.

Are there any rules that govern this sort of thing? And is the potential of incorrect adjective-noun modification pointed out by the writer a legitimate issue?

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1  
Only if the "adjective" isn't really an adjective but part of the noun. You would say the town swimming pool, and not *the swimming town pool –  Peter Shor Jun 24 '13 at 18:57

3 Answers 3

up vote 6 down vote accepted

You cannot interpose an adjective between the nouns of a noun phrase. As the Collins Cobuild English Grammar states:

When a noun group contains both an adjective and a noun modifier the adjective is placed in front of the noun modifier.

In most cases the noun phrase will be correctly interpreted, but it is legitimate to be concerned about potential ambiguity. For example, most people will probably interpret new car tires as meaning car tires that are new. So if, in fact, you mean that the cars are new but not necessarily the tires then you would be best advised to say the tires of new cars.

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2  
Shoe is correct. The adjective cannot be interposed. As for your writer's "point" about fine modifying the droplets and not the nitrogen, keep this in mind: In a noun phrase of this type, the first noun is not really a noun (in a sense). It actually has an adjectival function when used in this way. In English, we can say either nitrogen droplets or droplets of nitrogen; they mean exactly the same thing. In the first version, nitrogen becomes an adjective. So "fine nitrogen droplets" is grammatically equivalent to any phrase with two adjectives modifying a noun (like "big red car"). –  John M. Landsberg Jun 24 '13 at 5:39
    
As far as ambiguity is concerned, this is far less common in real contexts, particularly in spoken language, where prosody conveys meaning. If, by new car tires, I really meant the tires of a new car then I would give equal stress to new and car and make a slight pause before tires. –  Shoe Jun 24 '13 at 6:22
1  
As opposed to new car smell. –  bib Jun 24 '13 at 11:00

Since external houses and fine nitrogen don't make sense (although I suppose someone might come up with an outlandish situation where that's not the case), and 'high-calorie salad' is probably a contradiction in terms, there is no possible confusion in using

2' high-calorie salad dressing

3' external house wall [though context would usually allow the more common 'external wall']

4' fine nitrogen droplets

Of course, new cars are common, but here again,

new car tyres [or more usually just new tyres]

would never be read as 'tyres (UK) /tires (US) belonging to new cars'.

The 'rule' in these situations is that a 'noun modifier' (noun used as / as if it were an adjective) is always placed just before the modified noun. (If there is more than one, associations must be examined: eg 'Famous Rugby League assistant manager is fired.'

In some cases, the 'noun modifier + modified noun' will actually appear in a dictionary as a compound noun; it would obviously be silly to stick an adjective between the component parts then:

expensive particle board / expensive particleboard

*particle expensive board

Admittedly, there are occasions where confusion could occur. Judicious use of hyphens removes ambiguities in these cases:

sweet shop-girl

sweet-shop girl

sweet sweet-shop girl [if you must]

see Are hyphens used for phrases like "more or less"?

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So fine nitrogen-droplets –  mplungjan Jun 24 '13 at 14:18

Your friend is wrong. Compound nouns are nouns, and adjectives can modify them. This is the kind of silliness that comes from teaching people to name parts of speech and then believe they understand grammar.

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