I am writing a scientific thesis and wondering about the heading of one of the major parts. The part gives detailed information on experiments (experimental details) that were performed and simulations that were run (simulation details).

As is evident, in the first case, experimental is an adjective, while simulation in the second case needs to be used as an attributive noun.

Is there any objection to both of them referring to the same instance of details, constructing the following headline...

Experimental and Simulation Details

Or would this be better reworded?

  • ... details on experiments and simulations. Commented Aug 12, 2015 at 23:15
  • I am not looking for a suitable replacement of the phrase. Although the given example is of particular interest for the moment, the actual question remains "Can/Should an adjective and an attributive noun be used to refer to a common noun?" and I am looking for an answer in a general sense.
    – inVader
    Commented Aug 13, 2015 at 14:28
  • The phrase 'experimental details' conveys 'details that are experimental', not 'details of the experiments', which last is what I presume you intend.
    – JEL
    Commented Aug 13, 2015 at 18:23

3 Answers 3


There are examples where such a mixing of attributive modifiers causes no problems:

Stochastic optimization estimates the company option value of keeping open the choice between nuclear and gas technologies. {Researchgate}

Both wooden and steel ships were still being built.

But attempting to coordinate a classifier (adjective or noun) with a qualitative adjective results in a zeugma:

*He's gone to buy some dog and chocolate biscuits.

*Gas and cost-effective power stations were built.

*Nuclear and expensive reactors were built.

[Note that 'Cost-effective gas power stations ...' is fine.]

Classification errors should also be avoided:

*He's interested in wooden and trestle bridges.

  • So in general, you are saying its fine but the word order (attributive) noun & adjective noun can create ambiguity if it is not clear whether the noun is attibutive or not, whereas the word order adjective & (attributive) noun noun is less prone to misunderstanding, right? The given headline falls in the latter category whereas Simulation and Experimental Details would actually more like be interpreted in the wrong (i.e., unintended) way.
    – inVader
    Commented Aug 13, 2015 at 22:42
  • 1
    I'm saying that 'We're out of dog and chocolate biscuits.' is unacceptable even though it's fairly easily understood, because 'dog biscuits' and 'chocolate biscuits' are so disparate they cannot be acceptably coordinated. 'We're out of dog and cat flaps' is fine. Some, but by no means all, premodifiers may be coordinated. 'A clever and popular pupil' but '*a clever and deaf pupil'. // With 'Tall and muscular men make the best bodyguards', there is additionally the well-known ambiguity to address. Commented Aug 13, 2015 at 23:06
  • That is a reasonable and clear explanation.
    – inVader
    Commented Aug 13, 2015 at 23:55

Why bother with "Details" at all? Presumably you are not going to give a shallow and vague account of "Experiments and Simulations" so why not simplify the heading to that? In any case, I suspect that two separate headings would be better: "Experimental Details", if you really want to include "details"; and "Simulations".

  • While this may sound weird at first, I think that "Experimental Details" can encompass more than "Experiments". For example, the part will include a chapter on sample treatment and preparation which is a detail necessary for the experiment but not actually an experiment or a simulation.
    – inVader
    Commented Aug 13, 2015 at 14:24
  • Also, while of particular interest, the given phrase is merely an example and the question is put in a broader more general sense. I can find an alternative myself but am really interested in how valid/common/appropriate the construction is grammatically.
    – inVader
    Commented Aug 13, 2015 at 14:31

Grammatically, there is no such thing as an "attributive noun". The first part of a compound noun like "simulation details" is simply a noun, and like many other compound nouns, the grammatical construction is a noun built by combining two nouns. In interpretation, the first noun of such a compound may express an attribution, but it need not.

Consequently, your headline "experimental and simulation details" requires conjunction of the adjective "experimental" and the noun "simulation". But you can't conjoin phrases (or words) of different categories, and that's what is wrong with it. The fact that "simulation" in the compound expresses an attribution -- it could be "simulational" if there were such word -- is not an excuse. Grammatical constructions have grammatical constraints, not semantic ones.

  • I'm not sure in what frame of reference your claim that "grammatically, there is no such thing as an 'attributive noun'" applies, if any. The use of the term 'attributive noun' is common in a wide variety of grammars. For an example, one of many, see dictionary.reference.com/help/faq/language/d26.html. Your claim seems to be that the one true grammar does not admit attributive nouns, but rather compound nouns in their place. That's where I lose the frame of reference: what is the one true grammar that doesn't admit attributive nouns? Your 2nd paragraph is right on the button.
    – JEL
    Commented Aug 13, 2015 at 18:07
  • 1
    @JEL, I confess that I don't know how to prove that there are no "attributive nouns". I have seen a number of references to them, so I know some people believe in them, but I don't know why. I don't know of any grammatical evidence for their existence.
    – Greg Lee
    Commented Aug 13, 2015 at 18:26
  • CGEL argues strongly for them, but the tests they advocate may not distinguish them from some peripheral adjectives. Where the free association ..... loose collocation ..... strong collocation ... open compound boundaries should be deemed to lie is highly contentious. Commented Aug 13, 2015 at 18:52
  • @GregLee, I suspect your thinking on this is clearer and more detailed than mine. It is always tough to prove a negative on the basis of empirical evidence, and in this case especially so. So the proof might have to be categorical (and most certainly would be logical). When I consider the question in those terms, your position starts to make sense to me. The complete sense--some final sense which may or may not exist--continues to elude me, perhaps because my thinking is muddled and incomplete about the precise grammaticality of nouns and adjectives.
    – JEL
    Commented Aug 15, 2015 at 17:41

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