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I'm not sure what the grammatical terms are called so please accept my apology if I explain it a bit unsophisticatedly (is that a word?).

First, let's take a simple example.

living room
work method
dog party

Those are self-explanatory. It's a room used for living (activities), a method of conducting a work and a bunch of four-leggers getting together. But how about constellation of three word, such as this?

human computer interaction

Of course, we know what this means, because there's a consensus on the term (and it's vastly known from it's hyphenated correspondent). But what implies that it's not an interaction between computers (across the web using services) which is humanized? Or a cyborg (humanized computer) that's interacting?

So, the question pondering me is this. How should one interpret grammatically based correctly an ambiguous phrase on the following form?

something-a something-b something-c

Are there any rules or preferences as to whether it's:

  1. a-b'ish c,
  2. a'ish b-c, or
  3. something else'ish?
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1 Answer 1

up vote 2 down vote accepted

Op's construction involves one or more attributive nouns functioning as adjectives before the "actual" noun. So the default interpretation (if it makes sense) is the same as for consecutive adjectives in general - each term modifies the immediately-following term. Thus...

a car radio aerial wire connector

...is a type of connector.

What type of connector? One on the end of a wire.
What type of wire? One carrying the signal from an aerial.
What type of aerial? One used by a radio.
What type of radio? One fitted in a car.


But note that the default principle isn't particularly strong compared to the if it makes sense caveat. So if I refer to...

a big car radio aerial wire connector

...then it's only really the exact context that can clarify whether I'm talking about...

a wire connector for aerials attached to radios fitted in big cars
a wire connector for aerials attached to big radios fitted in cars
a wire connector for big aerials attached to radios fitted in cars
etc., etc.

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