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Nouns can modify nouns: cat food, coffee cup, gold ring, laser surgery, flood insurance. It seems to me there are even cases where a noun sounds better than the corresponding adjective: sociology papers sounds a bit better than sociological papers.

Some noun-noun combinations don’t work. You wouldn't say America gangsters or measurement spoons or greed crimes. If you spilled water on your keyboard you probably wouldn't call it a keyboard spill or even a water spill.

Are there rules that tell which combinations are acceptable?

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    Measurement spoons actually sounds fine to me — I wouldn’t use or expect it, because there’s already the idiom measuring spoons, but if I heard it I don’t think I’d notice it as odd. – PLL Apr 2 '11 at 2:40
  • Well, most any noun can be turned into a gerund phrase, but I don't think that's what you're looking for. :) +1. – Billy ONeal Apr 2 '11 at 4:36
  • Those aren't familiar uses but I don't think they're wrong. – Casey Jan 29 '16 at 15:50
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Well, we do say hate crimes and oil spill and Mafia gangster. Those are three parallel combinations to ones you say don't work.

Merriam-Webster Online has this to say:

While any noun may occasionally be used attributively, the label ... attributive is limited to those having broad attributive use. This label is not used when an adjective homograph (as iron or paper) is entered. And it is not used at open compounds (as health food) that may be used attributively with an inserted hyphen (as in health-food store).

This is given in the context of how the dictionary itself determines which nouns are labeled "attributive" by their editors.

Examples they cite are business ethics and bottle opener.

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    I picked those examples specifically because there are parallels that are very common (hate crimes and oil spill are the exact ones I was thinking of, but I had Chicago gangster rather than Mafia gangster). My question is, why these and not those? – Jason Orendorff Apr 4 '11 at 12:51

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