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I have a question about nouns triplets like "sofa box container" and I'll formulate it at the end. I have some reasoning and I want to make sure I'm correct.

First of all consider the following sample. Common sense helps understand the meaning of these words but I want to know the general rule for understanding the meaning of noun sequences.

  1. Spider man — a man who is also a spider
  2. Killer Queen — a queen who is also a killer
  3. Blade Runner — a man who runs on the blade
  4. Tiger lily — lily of "tiger" type

These are well-known examples. But I suppose the first two should be written with hyphen: spider-man, killer-queen.

Following the logic I tried to create sensible examples of 2-nouns combinations:

Killer queen — a queen of killers
Killer's queen — a queen, who is killer's
Killer-queen — a killer who is also a queen
Queen-killer — a queen who is also a killer
Queen killer — a killer of queens
Queen's Killer — a killer, who is queen's

Blade runner — 1) a runner who is like a blade (blade as adjective) — 2) someone or something who makes the blade run
Blade's runner — the runner of blade's property
Blade-runner — a blade who is a runner (blade and also a runner)
Runner-blade — a runner who is a blade (runner and also a blade)
Runner blade — 1) something that blades (verb) a runner — 2) a blade of type runner (what kind of blade? — runner)
Runner's blade — a blade of runner's property

Suppose we have 2 nouns A and B. The possible combinations of these nouns are:

A B
A's B
A-B
B-A
B's A
B A

Now the question: How do I interpret combinations of length more than two? What does "sofa box container" mean? Is it "boxes containing sofas" or "container of boxes where sofas were inside"? And does "sofa container box" mean "boxes which contain sofas" or "a box for a container of sofas"? Any other versions?

And finally, how do I say without prepositions "the machines which contain databases"?

I'm so confused by noun sequences. Any help is greatly appreciated!

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The original meaning of "Blade Runner" in the original Alan Nourse science fiction book was someone who smuggles (runs) illegal medical supplies (including blades, i.e., surgical knives). The movie studio that adapted Philip K. Dick's book "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep" to the screen had an option on Alan Nourse's book, and used its title rather than Dick's for the movie "Blade Runner". –  Peter Shor Oct 17 '11 at 0:19
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The short answer is simply that if it's ambiguous, it should be avoided. People, unless they err or are being silly, only use these kinds of phrases where context and common sense makes the meaning obvious. They are all formally ambiguous. –  David Schwartz Oct 17 '11 at 2:43
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I suggest OP's specific triplet sofa box container is effectively meaningless. There seems to be an assumption here that if you can string any three nouns together it should be possible to work out what they "mean" collectively, by the simple application of grammar. But the verbalisation must lead to something you can conceptualise. I don't know if there's ever been such a thing as a hat box cupboard, for example, but at least I can conceive of one. –  FumbleFingers Oct 17 '11 at 3:07
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@FumbleFingers I don't think sofa box container is itself meaningless. If I were a producer of sofas and I shipped my products in boxes, I would probably call those shipping cartons sofa boxes. If I ordered those boxes from another company, they might send them to me in something I call a sofa box container (or more clearly a sofa-box container). I agree with your general sentiment any three nouns in series should make sense. But, I can see where someone might use sofa box container. –  D Krueger Oct 17 '11 at 3:38
    
@D Krueger: Hmm. It's not clear to me why such a sofa box container would need to be differentiated from any other kind of box container. Apart from the fact that it just happens to contain boxes that happen to contain sofas. Come to that, I have trouble seeing why a container for boxes is that different to any other kind of container. –  FumbleFingers Oct 17 '11 at 4:46
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4 Answers

up vote 4 down vote accepted

English is not unambiguous, so there is no absolute rule. However, generally speaking the last noun is modified by the preceding nouns. "Sofa box container", has container as the last word, so it refers to a container, and the type of container is one for a sofa box.

When you hyphenate the meaning doesn't change much, so, from your example:

Queen-killer — a queen who is also a killer

Is not correct, a "queen-killer" is a person who kills queens. The hyphen just tightens the relationship.

The emphasis is the same with the genitive but the relationship is a little more ambiguous:

Queen's killer

Can mean a lot of things, the two most obvious candidates being a killer who works for the queen or a person who killed the queen. Nonetheless, the rule still applies, it is a killer, and the type of killer is "queen's".

So the bottom line is that usually the last word is the main word, the rest are modifiers.

For your example, database containing machines would be appropriate, since the main subject is the machine, and the rest say what type of machine. In this particular instance though the idiom would be just plain database machines, or database servers.

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With two non-verbal nouns, the first is usually describing the second. The most important aspect of Killer Queen is the fact that she's a queen. (The killer part of the song is mostly about her looks and behavior, and shouldn't be taken literally - she's not the queen of killers, nor a member of the royal family.)

We're used to seeing adjectives there - Red Queen, for instance. So we automatically use the first word as a modifier of the second. Tiger Lily is another good example.

This is different when the noun has been derived from a verb. For instance, Blade Runner and Flag Bearer both have verbal nouns, where the subject is doing the verb to the first word.

You can make sense of three-word combinations with a verbal noun in very easily, for instance:

Flag bearer parade - a parade of people bearing flags
Motor car driver - a driver of motor cars

It's obvious that the verbal noun must apply to the word before.

However, when you have three noun words, usually each is a modifier for the one that follows afterwards. For instance:

Tiger lily bouquet - a bouquet of Tiger Lilies
Killer Queen music - the music to the song, "Killer Queen"

We already know that Tiger is a modifier of lily and killer modifies queen.

Because your example contains a verbal noun - container - we know it must apply to the word before; a box. It's a container of boxes. Particularly, the boxes it contains are sofa boxes, as opposed to chair boxes. I don't know what a sofa box is, but I can still parse it.

The other phrase you're looking for could be database container machine but probably you'd just say database server. Hope that helps.

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Thanks! But should it be "database container-machine". Because "database container machine" using logic described above should be "something that machines (verb) the containers of databases" May be it is better to say "database machine container"? –  Romeno Oct 16 '11 at 22:40
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Verbal nouns usually end in "er", so in this case the verbal noun is "container" - something which contains. A "database machine container" would be something that contained database machines. You want a machine that contains databases. The verb, "contains", becomes the noun, "container". I have no idea why we call them machines, since they're not actually machining anything - maybe that should be another question! –  Lunivore Oct 16 '11 at 23:22
    
Okay. But why not hyphen between "container-machine"? –  Romeno Oct 16 '11 at 23:29
    
A machine that contains databases should either be a "database container" or a "database containing machine" (possibly hyphenated: "database-containing machine"). Here, the form of the verb changes depending on whether it's an adjective or noun. Of course, in real life it's called a "database server", as given by the answer. –  Peter Shor Oct 17 '11 at 0:24
    
I insist on hyphen between container and machine in "database container machine". It should be "database container-machine". Otherwise there can be misunderstanding! –  Romeno Oct 17 '11 at 0:34
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Well, a "sofa box container" is a container intended to be used for holding sofa boxes, which are either boxes with sofas inside or boxes intended to be used for holding sofas.

A "sofa container box" would be a box intended to be used for holding sofa containers, which is a container of sofas or intended to contain sofas.

It's a little confusing since you have two containers.

How about a "butter knife factory", a factory which is used to make knives which are used with butter.

Basically, the first two words are linked first, then the third word is linked to them.

By the way, I think you maybe should look up the slang definitions for both "killer" and "queen", as I doubt that the person being talked about in the song is either a literal killer or a literal queen.

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Thanks, for the answer –  Romeno Oct 16 '11 at 22:40
    
With "butter knife factory" interpreted as a factory to make knives for use with butter, some difficulties arise if you instead want to talk about a factory for making knives out of butter, or about a knife factory made out of butter. But some hyphens can conquer all. –  jwpat7 Oct 16 '11 at 23:08
    
thats the idea if it is ambiguous - use hyphens. "butter-knife factory" and "knife butter-factory" –  Romeno Oct 16 '11 at 23:22
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I think you guys are assuming a level of precision that English simply doesn't have. A butter knife factory means what it does because we know that knife factories aren't made out of butter. A large clothing factory could be either a large factory or a factory making large clothing. The English languages simply isn't as fully-defined as computer languages, and it's pointless trying to abstract this level of "rules". –  FumbleFingers Oct 17 '11 at 2:51
    
@FumbleFingers Now that's a good example of one that doesn't work with what I said, "large clothing factory" (well, large is an adjective and not a noun, so it doesn't really fit the pattern), however, "clothing" is acting as an adjective on factory so it's unlikely that "large" acts on "clothing" without a hyphen. –  Phoenix Oct 17 '11 at 15:56
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See also the Guardian style guide's entry on the hyphen for some advice in this general area.

In short drop a hyphen between two words if possible (wire-less becomes wireless) and use a hyphen to avoid ambiguity (black-cab driver or black cab-driver).

As to the question: " How do I understand combinations of length more than two?"

  • If the writer has followed these rules it shouldn't be ambiguous.
  • If the writer has written ambiguous text, use context to understand it.
  • Failing that you'll have to try and find precedents.
  • Failing even that, too bad, welcome to the wonderful confusing world (of badly written) English!
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