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I would be very grateful for some advice on how to decide whether to use an attributive noun or the "of genitive" (periphrastic genitive).

It seems to me that an attributive noun is generally preferable, except when it leads to ambiguity, often due to the combination of several modifiers with mixed dependent relationships.

Additionally, the of-genitive, when used stand-alone, seems to impart a more formal tone, a higher register.

Simple examples (preferred first, less-preferred second):

The department secretary vs. the secretary of the department.

But:

The excellent secretary of the department vs. the excellent department secretary.

Any additional guidelines would be most welcome.

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    Or "departmental secretary". Sep 19, 2015 at 22:06
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    I think you answered your own question. The preference for one over the other has to do with the formality of the writing. Notice on American money it says "secretary of the treasury," and not "Treasury secretary." Or President of the United States." Sep 20, 2015 at 1:27
  • @michael_timofeev But news reporters will frequently use "treasury secretary".
    – Spencer
    May 15, 2018 at 17:40
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    The attributive style is professional-sounding, and more clipped. It allows broader association (imagine 'a Manager of Football'. 'A pen of writing'!) The periphrastic-of style adds gravitas (imagine 'The Flies Lord'). It avoids awkward singular/plural problems sometimes met with in using an attributive noun. May 3, 2020 at 16:57

4 Answers 4

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Simple examples (preferred first, less-preferred second):

The department secretary vs. the secretary of the department.

Fine.

The helpful secretary of the department vs. the helpful department secretary.

No, here you've put the less common one first.

Note, I replaced excellent with helpful, so the phrase would sound natural to my ear. But my answer holds for "excellent" too.

In general, stringing things out with lots of extraneous prepositions comes across as pompous or foreign-sounding.

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This might loosely pertain to active vs passive voice (the active voice is generally preferred). While there is no verb here, it is more "direct" (for lack of a better term) to say "department secretary" rather than "secretary of the department" as well as more economical.

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  • The attributive style is professional-sounding, and more clipped / economical. It allows broader association (imagine 'a Manager of Football'. 'A pen of writing'!) Of course, [noun] + [noun] strings are often weak to strong collocations or even open compound nouns (and more recent strings may develop in cohesiveness over time).
  • The periphrastic-of style adds gravitas (imagine 'The Flies Lord' ... and 'Royal Air Force Marshall' sounds less dignified than the standard term). It avoids awkward singular/plural problems sometimes met with in using an attributive noun.

Doubtless exceptions to the above rules of thumb exist.

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If "genitive" is limited to possessive case, which I think it should be, then this question does not involve periphrastic genitive per se. Instead, "the department secretary" is a noun phrase containing a noun modifier--no possession indicated. The other example is a prepositional phrase modifying a noun to form a noun phrase that would be used in either nominative or objective case. Now if "the secretary of the department" means "the department's secretary," then you involve periphrastic genitive. The simplest distinction is to refer to a foreign language such as French or Spanish, which routinely require periphrastic constructions for the genitive. A speaker cannot say "Paul's livre" or "Pablo's libro": he or she must say "le livre de Paul" or "el libro de Pablo." In English we routinely indicate possession with either an initial modifier: "Paul's book," or periphrasis: "the book of Paul's."

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