I'm doing some programming and I'm analyzing text written in English. I'm identifying parts of speech and I run into cases where I have something like vacuum cleaner. I, as a human, know that the word cleaner is dominant in this case and the word vacuum describes the cleaner. Both of these words are nouns though (I'm using the Corpus of Contemporary English which tells me the part of speech for 500,000 words).

My question is, if you have two nouns in a row like this, is the noun that acts as an adjective always on the left of the "dominant" noun? I can come up w/ cases that act like this, however not the reverse.

  • laptop computer
  • data collector
  • steel screw

Any help is appreciated.

  • 1
    The technical term for this is a noun adjunct or an attributive noun. They come before the "primary" noun.
    – badroit
    Commented Jan 31, 2014 at 19:39
  • 1
    You may be on fairly safe ground by assuming that such nouns used as adjectives precede the main noun, since in English adjectives mostly precede their nouns. There is a considerable discussion of 'post-position adjectives' at the below link. As far as I know it doesn't include any that are nouns. But you may find the discussion helpful. english.stackexchange.com/questions/42319/…
    – WS2
    Commented Jan 31, 2014 at 19:39

2 Answers 2


In English, the modifying noun is a premodifier, that is, it is placed before the main noun; if the order is reversed, say for reasons of clarification in a list, etc., the relationship is maintained with the use of a comma: cleaner, vacuum.

Your examples are called noun adjuncts where the definition includes the term premodifier.

Of your examples, one can be reversed (however unlikely), but the meaning is changed: steel screw can be reversed, to screw steel, but this would be understood as steel set apart to be made into screws.

Race car would become car race: a particular kind of race with cars, as opposed to bike race, foot race, etc.

Bike race can be reversed to become race bike.

So, yes, the modifier of two noun pairs precedes the head (or modified element). The only exception that I can think of is if the word is a foreign one.

  • Except that in the Queen's English we call it a 'racing bike'. If there is one trend in English I deplore it is the movement away from use of the present participle as adjective in favour of a noun. Thus we get such ridiculous abominations as 'fry pan', 'swim pants', etc. The pants don't swim, they are used for swimming! One day I shall give up and go and live in France!
    – WS2
    Commented Jan 31, 2014 at 19:45
  • @WS2 - I understand your frustration (I say frying pan) but I hardly see the difference between swim pants and swimming pants; indeed in the latter, it does seem to lend itself more to the interpretation that the pants are swimming. Commented Jan 31, 2014 at 19:50
  • @WS2: "jumping beans": beans for jumping?
    – badroit
    Commented Jan 31, 2014 at 20:22
  • There are some strings (I'll avoid the term 'collocations' here as ambiguous) that are accepted compound nouns made from two nouns. A few have two heads. Thus manservant pluralises to menservants – though this is not a multi-word lexeme. However, woman doctor pluralises to women doctors, and one could argue that 'woman' is as much the head here as 'doctor'. Commented Jan 31, 2014 at 20:54
  • 1
    @WS2 Flabby tums and floppy breasts are not a pretty sight to behold.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Jan 31, 2014 at 23:06

There is an exception that leaps to mind, and that would be "Attorney General." Although I have seen people define such a person as the "attorney for the 'general public'," my understanding is that "General" here means leader or head, thus the noun form and not the adjectival form of "generic" or "nondescript." Dictionary.com seems to agree.

I have seen it noted elsewhere that that titles do not contain adjectives.

The fact that it is a reversed compound is witnessed by the fact that the plural is Attorneys General, indicating that "Attorney" is the 'dominant' noun, as you put it.

  • 1
    Wikipedia disagrees: 'Some compounds have one head with which they begin. These heads are also nouns and the head usually pluralizes, leaving the second, adjectival, term unchanged: attorney general <==> attorneys general'. As does dailywritingtips: ... Should you write “attorney generals,” or “attorneys general”? The former treatment disregards that attorney is the key element; general, in this usage, is an adjective, not a noun. (This reverse placement of adjective and noun is a legacy of the French origin of the term.) But “attorneys general” seems stilted and odd to many people ... Commented Jan 31, 2014 at 22:44
  • Yes, that's the one I was thinking of too. :) -- attorneys general or attorney generals, courts martial or court martials, men-of-war, sisters-in-law or sister-in-laws, etc.
    – F.E.
    Commented Jan 31, 2014 at 23:30
  • @EdwinAshworth Attorneys General, Solicitors General, Chancellors of the Exchequer, Secretaries of State, Masters of the Rolls, Lords Privy Seal, Ministers without Portfolio, Archbishops of Canterbury, and Admirals of the Fleet, sound perfectly proper to me. Whilst Field Marshalls, Detective Inspectors,Prime Ministers, Foreign Secretaries,and Wing Commanders do too. Ones I am not sure about are the office of Lord Chancellor and Lord Chief Justice, as well as Reverend Doctor (one of whom I know).
    – WS2
    Commented Jan 31, 2014 at 23:52
  • There is another compound that seems to buck the trend: steak canadian (also variously capitalised) normally pluralises to steak canadians. It seems obvious that 'canadian' has adjective ancestry, though the connection with canada seems non-detectable. Some prescriptivist said 'It should be steak canadienne', but that's not what I saw on the butcher's advertisement today. Commented Feb 1, 2014 at 11:19

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