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This is from NYTimes:

And again and again, and closer and closer, it returns to a speeding commuter train, a recurrence that artfully foreshadows the story’s nifty repetition compulsion.

How can this sentence end with two nouns? What does “nifty repetition compulsion” mean?

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3 Answers 3

up vote 4 down vote accepted

Yes, this is grammatical. The first noun is acting like an adjective. As Colin notes, you can't always put a noun in a the same position as an adjective bu it does work as 'N N'.

'Cheese casserole' isn't a casserole that happens to have a lot of cheese (which is what is implied by 'cheesy casserole'); somehow 'cheese ' is essential to the casserole that is a 'cheese casserole'.

The official term for this usage of a noun as a modifier is Noun Adjunct.

It is not an Adjectival Noun which is the other direction, an adjective that acts like a noun.

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The two nouns "repetition compulsion" mean "a compulsion for repetition" — and as such they are easily understood by native speakers.

It can be argued that the first noun in such pairs functions as an adjective. But the distinction is not always clearcut.

I hung my jacket on the coat rack.

Is coat an adjective or a noun there?

Edit: @Kosmonaut and I have discussed this very issue in chat. He (a grad student in linguistics) gave "poster board" and "hat rack" as legitimate noun-noun combinations.

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Is that grammatical? I mean, shouldn't it be "repetitional compulsion", so that it is "adj. + n." –  trVoldemort Apr 1 '11 at 13:01
    
Or maybe I should think "repetition" as an adj.(mutation of a noun). –  trVoldemort Apr 1 '11 at 13:02
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In that "coat" refines the general notion of "rack" (differentiating that sort of rack from a "hat" rack), I'd call it an adjective; there ought to be some technical term denoting "noun-used-as-adjective", but if there is, I don't know what it is. –  PSU Apr 1 '11 at 13:25
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"Coat" is not an adjective, as it fails most of the tests for adjectiveness. Noun-noun combinations are common in English (especially in headlines). They are arguably common in German too, but there written as single words. –  Colin Fine Apr 1 '11 at 13:35
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@PSU and others: Coat rack is a compound noun. Don't get fooled by the whitespace. It's a single unit. Coat is not an adjective there. Here's a trick some linguists use: try comparing it with something that is most certainly an adjective, e.g. nice. You can say "this rack is nice", but you can't say "this rack is coat". Another trick to tell compounds from phrases is by checking the stress: compare bláckboard to black bóard, dárk room to dark róom, smálltalk to small tálk. In compounds, the stress is usually on the first word; in phrases, on the second. –  RegDwigнt Apr 1 '11 at 13:44
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Robusto does a good job of responding to the NYT sentence. Here are some other ways to end a sentence with two nouns:

I like Robert; John.

This is a car — truck!

This is a house (mansion).

Most of these are borderline with regards to acceptance. You will hear from time to time but the point is that messing with punctuation can result in some oddities. The first in the list is most common in headlines: "Farmers slaughter cows, chickens."

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But they have nothing to do with the question, only with a rather perverse interpretation of its title. –  Colin Fine Apr 1 '11 at 13:35
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@Colin: People searching for this topic will read the title. This at least gives a quick answer to the literal question asked by the title. If they need more information they can ask their own form of the question. –  MrHen Apr 1 '11 at 14:08
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