Does a name go before or after the noun it modifies?

The sentence

The user “john_smith” has been registered; go to the “User Profile” tab to view the user’s details.

reads more naturally to me than

The “john_smith” user has been registered; go to the tab “User Profile” to view the user’s details.

but I’m not sure why. In particular, it seems wrong for john_smith to go before the word user, whereas User Profile can go either before or after the word tab (although it seems to flow a little better when it’s before).

What rules of grammar apply here?

UPDATE 5/19/2018: I’ve changed “John Smith” to “john_smith” to help clarify that it is supposed to be a unique “username” assigned to a new user.

• If the “John Smith user” was actually wrong so, for instance, would be The Bourne Identity for exactly the same reasons. How would you explain their errors to Matt Damon’s producers? – Robbie Goodwin May 16 '18 at 22:18
• The "John Smith" user is wrong because the John Smith is not a type of user identified by an adjective. Simple enough. Why get one's knickers in a twist? – Lambie May 19 '18 at 18:57
• Some answers say that "John Smith" / "john_smith" should go after "user" because "John Smith" identifies which user, not what kind of user. But everyone seems to say "the File menu" and not "the menu File"—surely "File" also identifies which menu, not what kind of menu? Hence my question about "the “User Profile” tab". I'm still confused... – Michael Liu May 20 '18 at 1:42

I disagree with most of what Luke Baumgarten says.

In general you can use any noun phrase to modify another noun in English (I don't think it is helpful to say it is 'treated as an adjective'): the dog basket, a big city attitude (where big city, a noun modified with an adjective, is the modifying noun phrase).

Personal names are less often used in this way, though they can be; but when they are it is to characterise the head noun as a kind of object, not an individual associated with that name. So a Ben Sherman shirt is a kind of shirt produced by the Ben Sherman company, (or if you know a Ben Sherman who is known for wearing a particular kind of shirt, then people in your circle might refer to a shirt of that kind as a Ben Sherman shirt). But you would not say a Ben Sherman shirt to mean any shirt which happened to be Ben's (though you might if it was one of his characteristic shirts - because it is a Ben-kind-of shirt, not a belonging-to-Ben shirt). For this reason you would be unlikely to hear the John Smith user (though not impossible). To refer to the user who is (or the user account which is used by) the individual John Smith, it is much more usual to put the name in apposition, the user John Smith.

(Place names on the other hand are used in this way: London policemen are policemen from London, not (generally) London kind-of policemen).

The User Profile tab is a slightly different case because User profile does not represent an individual, so the meaning of a User-Profile-kind-of tab is the only one available. (The fact that there might be only one such tab in a particular application is not relevant: User Profile does not identify anything individually in the sense that John Smith does.) The User Profile tab means the tab which is of a User Profile kind; the tab "User Profile" means _the tab which is named "User Profile": there may not be much practical difference.

• I’m afraid I’m still confused. I understand the Ben Sherman shirt and London policemen examples, but the shirt isn’t named Ben Sherman and the policemen aren’t named London. Here, in contrast, John Smith and User Profile identify “which one”, not “what kind”. The user [named] “John Smith” has been registered; go to the tab [named] “User Profile”. Both John Smith and User Profile are names, so why can we swap the order of User Profile and tab but not John Smith and user? Are personal names just special? – Michael Liu May 26 '13 at 0:08
• Yes, names are special. Cf. President Lincoln, Chairman Mao, and the virgin Connie Swail. – Old Pro May 17 '18 at 6:23
• @MichaelLiu There's nothing in your question that indicates John Smith is, literally, the name of the user. Let's say there's an administrator named John Smith at a company who assigns usernames to employees—and always prefixes them with xyz: "Oh, that' new guy, he got a John Smith username." (Because he was assigned "xyzDMore.") That's what this answer is saying. If used in one order, it refers to a type of name, if used in another sense it's a literal name. And, usually, you would not mix the two. Which is the answer to your question about when to use one or the other. – Jason Bassford May 19 '18 at 20:47
• I've edited the question to clarify my intent that "John Smith" is supposed to be a username and not necessarily the real name of any person. – Michael Liu May 20 '18 at 1:32
• See Lambie in comments at OP. – Kris May 21 '18 at 10:15

We put 'the' before a noun mainly when it is unique. Likewise, if we will put 'the' before the username; then it will surely feel absurd because he is not that much famous or unique by his name. On the other hand; putting 'the' before the word 'user' specifies that there is a specific user 'john_smith' that is addressed in this sentence.

• Welcome to EL&U! Try adding a link to a grammar guide or some further explanation into your answer because at the moment it is a little sparse. Also, try to avoid 'I think' and go with 'this source says'. – BladorthinTheGrey May 21 '18 at 14:00

REVISED: This is a grammar question, but it is a question for generative grammar because it requires the Determiner Phrase distinction of X-bar theory in order to understand what is really different about each of the sentences. There is a noun-modifier in each of the phrases. The word order determines which word is the determiner+noun-modifier and which one is the noun-phrase noun. To the extent that one or the other succeeds or fails is a function of which makes a more sensible determiner for the other.

1A                     1B
DP: The user           The "johnsmith"
NP: "johnsmith"        user
VP: "has been registered."
DP: [hey] ;)
NP: [you]
VP: Go
PP: to
2A                     2B
DP: the tab            the "userprofile"
NP: "userprofile."     tab.


In the first case "the johnsmith" does not function as a good determiner for user. The "johnsmith" transaction history. The "johnsmith" hairstyle. The "johnsmith" Presidential Library. ok not that one. But "the user" is an excellent determiner: The user name. The user profile. The user agreement. The user him/herself. Etc.

In the second case "the tab" is a not a good determiner for "userprofile." At all. Except by counterexample: "The tab layout" "The tab feature" It is for introducing things that tabs have. Not the other way around. Whereas "the userprofile" is an excellent determiner in this context: "the userprofile page" "the userprofile settings" "the userprofile object/property/servlet."

This is not a grammar question. Both of the sentences are perfectly grammatical. But they have different meanings. So the reason that one sentence sounds correct and the other does not is that the subtle difference in meaning leads to one sentence which comports with your understanding of what has happened and another which does not.

The user "John Smith" has been registered. The "John Smith" user has been registered.

Their grammar and thus their meaning is different which I know immediately upon reading them as you do. I can only explain why if I try to translate them into Latin or Russian where there is full suite of case markers.

The user is subject in both sentences. Subject = Nominative. Easy.

But the case marker for "John Smith" is not the same for both of these sentences. In the first sentence, In Russian, "John Smith" stays in the Nominative case. The one and only user "John Smith" is the subject of the sentence. In Latin, I want to use the Vocative. Which is still just subject case, used for direct address. That may not be correct. It might just be nominative. I was often accused of over using the Vocative case. (Which exists in English only poetically as the particle "O.." "O judgment, thou art fled to brutish beasts." Judgement is clearly the subject of that sentence but is also being spoken to, sort of. The user "John Smith" has been registered. juror number 2 has been released. I understood this form of specifying by name as the criteria and application for Vocative. Or just Nominative, simple subject case

In the second sentence, "John Smith" would be in the genitive case. Because "John Smith" is the type of user or a quality of the user. The user belongs to the class of users known as the "John Smith" users. The user is an instance, just one example of a "John Smith" user. Well that is not right at all.

The user has been registered. Is a simply declarative sentence which is just a little too vague. Which user? Why, the user "John Smith" if you must know.

A user has been registered. A user? What kind of user? A "John Smith" user of course. Which user is it? The "John Smith" user (?!) The only reason The "John Smith" user seems like it unambiguous is because we have separate understanding of "John Smith" as the name of one person. But user names can be anything.

The user "blue toothpaste" has been registered. The specific user with the name "blue toothpaste" has been registered. This is the meaning you intend. The "blue toothpaste" user has been registered. The user of the so-called blue toothpaste has been registered. Oh no not another blue toothpaste user. This is not the meaning you intend.

The juror number 1 has been released. == The specific juror with the number 1 has been released.

The number 1 juror has been released. == The best juror has been released, Juror 6.

• (Not my downvote) What about the “User Profile” tab versus the tab “User Profile” — is the analysis the same or different? – Michael Liu May 20 '18 at 1:21
• English has the parameter setting “head-initial.” Word order matters. The two examples are determiner phrases DP with a noun modifier. Removing the UI features: “The user was registered; go to the user profile to see details.” The NP subject is distinct and exclusive count of one. For which, English gives the determiner /the/ which we expand upon in various ways “the new blue user” in which case the determiner is “the new blue.” Which helps us select the unique one out of a set using characteristics given. This is precisely why “the johnsmith user” fails and “the userprofile tab” succeeds – Aaron K May 20 '18 at 20:57
• Please refer to “x-bar theory” and “determiner phrase” anywhere fine theories are sold. – Aaron K May 20 '18 at 21:36
• The “rule” is the head-initial default setting of English. The choice is: which noun you choose as the noun-modifier in the determiner phrase and which is the noun in the noun-phrase? If you lack this distinction then you tie yourself in knots looking for a shoehorn with teeth to make other rules apply that do not. – Aaron K May 20 '18 at 22:26
• I'm confused what the relevance of case in Russian is and also by your last four paragraphs repeating the same thing with different NPs. – Azor Ahai May 21 '18 at 23:15

Depending on actual context, which may only be surmised based on the scanty information provided in the question, there are four ways to write the sentence using the given word choice and focusing especially on the inversion of user and "John Smith".

In two of the sentences, either one: user or "John Smith", may work as an adjective to modify the other.

• The user "John Smith" has been registered...

Means that there is more than one John Smith in question, and only one of them may be indicated as the user.

• The "John Smith" user has been registered...

Means that there is more than one user in question, and only one of them may be indicated by the name, John Smith.

In the next two sentences with the exact same word choice, the use of commas to set off either one: user or "John Smith", allows for different meanings. In the following examples, either user or "John Smith" may work as non-essential elements (or, additional information) within the sentences.

• The user, "John Smith", has been registered...

A user has been registered and his name is "John Smith".

• "John Smith", the user, has been registered...

A person named "John Smith" has been registered as a user.

In both of the latter sentences, the context is fairly clear that user refers to someone who is being registered. So there should be no ambiguity regarding the meaning of the word, user, relative to "John Smith".

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Because of the way we deal with names, even virtual ones, "User" and "John Smith" are both nouns. "Tab" is definitely a noun, but in this context, "User Profile" is not. It's an adjective.

Nouns can function as adjectives, which is where things get weird. And since "User" and "John Smith" are both nouns, it comes down to importance as to which we tend to treat as the noun in a sentence and which we treat as adjectives.

Proper names are prioritized in our culture, so it makes sense that you'd like the first construction better.

The "tab" clause is correct. The "user" clause fits better with our preference toward proper names.

Both "the user John Smith" and "the John Smith user" are technically correct, but as a matter of style the first version will trip fewer people up.

It just feels weird to make a proper noun like "John Smith" subordinate to a generic noun like "user"

Though you could also say: "John Smith, the user profile, has been registered." And that feels pretty natural.

• When you say that "User Profile" is an adjective "in this context" and that the "tab" clause is correct, are you referring to both sentences or just the first? – Michael Liu May 24 '13 at 18:51
• In both examples, "User Profile" is an adjective and "tab" is a noun. The first example is the grammatically correct one. CORRECT: go to the “User Profile” tab to view the user’s details. INCORRECT: go to the tab “User Profile” to view the user’s details. ALSO CORRECT, but more wordy: go to the tab named "User Profile" to view the user's details – Luke Baumgarten May 24 '13 at 19:03
• I'd love to agree with that, but your logic seems flawed. How is 'go to the tab “User Profile” ' incorrect, please? Is it still incorrect in 'go to the tab named “User Profile” ‘? If there is no such tab, that’s different but if there is, does it have a name, or not, and is that name “User Profile” or not? – Robbie Goodwin May 16 '18 at 22:12
• As soon as you put "User Profile" in quotes, it's a noun. – Hot Licks May 17 '18 at 1:13
• In “the userprofile tab,” “the userprofile” is a determiner phrase (DP) consisting of a determiner and a noun phrase containing a noun-modifier. Just as our rotary phones have given way to smartphones. The technology within the linguistic craft of syntax analysis has also progressed. There are more expositive tools available. “Chicken Soup” contains no adjectives. How do I know? “The hot, salty chicken soup.” Cannot be re-written: “the chicken, salty, hot soup.” It cannot be amplified; “The soup was very chicken.” – Aaron K May 20 '18 at 21:25