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I recently read the term "electrical system operators" in an article, and I immediately felt that this sounded wrong, because it is the system that's electrical, not the operators. I would always try to rwrite this as "operators of electrical systems". Do native English speakers have the same problem as me (I'm German)?

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Yes, you are right. –  Elberich Schneider Apr 19 '12 at 6:36
    
As Barrie says, there's no real ambiguity in this particular case, but when there is, you can just use a hyphen. Rewording is overkill. See e.g. Chicago Manual of Style, 6.39: "When a temporary compound is used as an adjective before a noun, it is often hyphenated to avoid misleading the reader. (e.g. 'a fast sailing ship': is it a 'ship that is sailing fast', in which case you should hyphenate it, or 'a sailing ship that is fast', in which case you should leave it unhyphenated.)" We have dozens of questions covering this already. –  RegDwigнt Apr 19 '12 at 9:19
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marked as duplicate by RegDwigнt Apr 19 '12 at 9:21

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2 Answers

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Even though it will seem awkward at first, adjectives that modify other adjectives should be hyphenated to help clear up examples such as yours. Example:

Electrical-engineering firm : A firm that practices electrical engineering.
Electrical engineering firm : An engineering firm that runs of electricity.

Only copyeditors follow this rule, and even then only if they are not trumped by an in-house style guide.

Many will say "oh it's common sense" but here's a humdinger:

Big clothing store

Do they sell big clothes? Or are they a big store? Both are very possible, and my fat-ass uncle is going to be pissed if he drives across town just to find out it's just a store with a lot of square feet.

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'Big clothing store' is unlikely to occur in isolation. There will almost always be some clue as to what is meant. In any case, are clothes in large sizes really called 'big clothing'? –  Barrie England Apr 19 '12 at 7:51
    
A small appliance factory went bankrupt yesterday. Did they make toasters or just have a small staff? –  Anthony Apr 19 '12 at 8:10
    
And my point isn't that context isn't usually available, it's that there is actually a grammatically rule so that it doesn't have to be, and ignoring it is basically like expecting someone to hear your tone of voice in am email. Usually it works out, but it can be pretty awful when it doesn't. –  Anthony Apr 19 '12 at 8:12
    
I wonder if any production plant would actually ever be called an appliance factory. –  Barrie England Apr 19 '12 at 8:51
    
@Anthony Do you have a reference for this? –  daniel kullmann Apr 19 '12 at 11:48
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Context, and common sense, will usually remove any possible ambiguity. Only the most perverse would say that electrical system operators could mean that the operators rather than the system were electrical.

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