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I am a software developer with a bit of a linguistic slant. We were recently given some training on how to name database fields and were told to avoid adjectives in names.

Then we were given an example: “employee_id” is considered a bad name because of the adjective. I just about exploded. “Employee” is a noun, not an adjective. Which makes “employee” a determiner!

And then I thought about it some more and wanted to make sure I had the right definition of “determiner”, which is admittedly a fuzzy definition. “Employee” is essential to the meaning of “employee ID”. Then again, is this really “short” for “employee’s ID” (in which case the genitive noun is definitely a determiner)?

Is there a good definition of “determiner” out there? Is “employee” in this case a determiner? And why?

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up vote 13 down vote accepted

It's a noun modifier. See the Wikipedia article on grammatical modifiers for details. Whoever wrote the example saying that "employee" is an adjective in the noun phrase "employee ID" has been confused into thinking that any word that modifies a noun is an adjective.

It's not a determiner, though, either.

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There’s quite a lot of that confusion going around. I like to use a predicate test to distinguish running shoes form running water. The water is running, so that makes running there an adjective, but the shoes are not running (rather, they are for running; often of works, too), so there running is acting as a noun. – tchrist Aug 10 '13 at 23:57

Determiners form a closed class in English, so I wouldn't say that employee is a determiner. "the employee id" would be impossible if it were a determiner, too.

On the other hand, I wouldn't call it an adjective either. My reasoning comes from examples: a pretty person is pretty, but employee identification isn't employee. No, employee is a noun, and, probably through an adjunct, modifies the other.

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How could it be an adjective? That would make "dog" in "dog food" an adjective.

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Funny… Almost two years later and I am considering a similar thing (what employee is to employee first name) because I am reviewing a naming standard. First is an adjective for name and most times that is all you may need. However you MAY need more in large enterprise data models. Wikipedia seems to suggest that employee in this data name is a noun adjunct—a noun that modifies another noun which they say "functions as an adjective". I like this final wording; it's easy to understand and I think that it is what I will use in naming standards.

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