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?

  • 1
    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, 2011 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. Apr 2, 2011 at 4:36
  • Those aren't familiar uses but I don't think they're wrong.
    – Casey
    Jan 29, 2016 at 15:50

2 Answers 2


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.

  • 3
    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? Apr 4, 2011 at 12:51
  • 'Bottle opener' is surely a single lexeme, no matter how transparent its recent etymology. I'd expect to see it listed as a separate headword rather than under either of the progenitors. // While your answer refines the analysis, it does not address the 'why' (certain combinations have ended up the preferred choices). Apr 21, 2021 at 11:31

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language by H&P (Page 444) defines "attributive modifiers" as follows:

Internal modifiers in pre-head position are realised by DPs, AdjPs, VPs with past participle or gerund-participle heads, and nominals in plain or genitive case:

Among which let's focus on AdjPs and nominals:

ii a. his wry attitude b. many very angry farmers [AdjP]

v a. its entertainment value b. those Egyptian cotton shirts [nominal]

Although internal modifiers in pre-head position are called "attributive modifiers", I think only an adjective (AdjP to be exact) expresses an attribute of a modified noun, and that a noun (a nominal to be exact) used as an "attributive modifier" expresses not an attribute but a kind of a modified noun.

While wry and very angry express respective attributes of attitude and farmers, entertainment and Egyptian cotton express not respective attributes but respective kinds of value and shirts. And the same can be said about cat food, coffee cup, gold ring, laser surgery, flood insurance, sociology papers, hate crimes, Chicago gangster, business ethics, bottle opener, etc.

Of course, there are exceptions as always to this distinction. ??America gangsters, for example, is an exception where the adjective American, not the noun America, is used to express the nationality. Note, however, that you can say U.S. gangsters, where U.S. is a nominal.

??Measurement spoons is another exception where V-ing (measuring), not a noun, is used to describe the kind of spoons in terms of their use (e.g., a sleeping bag). Greed crimes could work, but it's just that no such crimes are defined in criminal law. (Criminal law is another example of an exception where the adjective criminal expresses the kind of law.)

A keyboard spill may not be necessary, because what other kinds of spill can be compared with it? A water spill, I think, is theoretically possible compared with an oil spill, but again it might not be terribly necessary to use the term considering that no harm is done by a water spill.

  • There may be something to this. I wonder though. In many of these examples, like "wry attitude", "angry farmers", "cotton shirts", "cat food", "coffee cup", "laser surgery", "flood insurance", and "business ethics", it seems to me we just use the word at hand, whether it happens to be an adjective or a noun. There's no adjective that means "for holding coffee" or "done using lasers"; and no noun meaning "the quality of being wry" leaps to mind ("acid" is an adjective when used that way). So I think these cases do not test the proposed rule, and thus aren't really evidence either way. Jul 16, 2021 at 18:29
  • Of the examples that do test the hypothesis, an awful lot are exceptions. A "gold ring", as you point out, is a kind of ring; but doesn't "golden ring" mean the same thing? Jul 16, 2021 at 18:38
  • @JasonOrendorff A gold ring is necessarily a golden ring, but a golden ring is not necessarily a gold ring. So they're not the same thing. I don't know how you can claim that there are "an awful lot" of exceptions. Please show me not just one but an awful lot.
    – JK2
    Jul 17, 2021 at 1:28

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