English, having originated as a germanic language, uses premodifier noun adjuncts (is this the right terminology?) to form compound nouns like "science fiction writer". However, English also says "table of contents", where "of contents" is a prepositional phrase I would think. Now, I write texts or translate and get corrected by reviewers and proof-readers, who are English and serious people, while I am not. For example, recently I wrote "density of water" and was corrected to "water density". It gets worse, I feel, when there are several premodifiers e.g. I wrote "plant of the Cimenterie Nationale d'Haïti" and was corrected to "Cimenterie Nationale d'Haïti plant".

What is the rule? Is there a recommended limit to the number of premodifiers? Perhaps not more than two? Science fiction writer sounds OK. What is the correct terminology talking about this issue?

With many thanks!

  • @EdwinAshworth Sorry. My bad. Oct 29 '15 at 9:07
  • The word 'Germanic' (a 'proper adjective') is normally capitalised, Johannes, even when used in a sense not likely to be considered non-PC. Oct 29 '15 at 9:21
  • You are probably right. However, what does non-PC mean? With thanks, Johannes Oct 30 '15 at 5:00

You have asked an excellent question relevant to both the Language and Usage parts of ELU. From a language point of view, this construct is called (as you note) the adjunct noun, which labels a noun that acts as a noun modifier. From a usage point of view, you ask what rules govern its employment. This is mostly a matter of style, which is to say that opinions will differ and answers won't come as simple rules like "make your subjects agree with their verbs."

First of all, you'll simply have to learn the adjunct pairs that have made it into the language as a unit. For instance, brick wall. There are few occasions when you'd use "wall of brick." One clue is that the digram has become idiomatic:

I've never met someone so stubborn. Arguing with him is like talking to a brick wall.

Sometimes you can spot digrams on their way to union. For instance, we once had head phones and headphones, but sometime around 1925 according to the Ngram viewer, the latter took off and left the former to disappear. Sometimes these usages go through a hyphenated stage. Recently someone asked here about which of touch screen, touch-screen, and touchscreen to use as he'd seen all three. I don't know which will win, but in these cases I'd stick with the adjunct usage.

Next, be careful to watch for situations in which the adjunct noun phrasing differs in meaning from the transposed prepositional phrase. For instance, consider the following two sentences:

The usual value of the density of water is one gram per cubic centimeter.
In the ocean, the water density increases with depth.

The first phrasing is about a physical constant; the second, about a measured parameter. They're not interchangeable.

Avoid ambiguity. What does the following mean?

A Victorian glass house

Is this a house made of Victorian-era glass or is this a Victorian-style house made of glass? Or is it both, like the Crystal Palace?

I think you're right that things get worse with more adjuncts (more of which later), but in your example, Cimenterie Nationale d'Haïti is a proper name and is only one adjunct. As far as I can tell, the closer the proper name is associated with products, locations, etc., the more likely the adjunct is favored, so for General Motors, we'd say

a GM car, a GM plant, the GM board of directors

but not "a car of GM." That usage is fine for

the bailout of GM, the history of GM, the control of GM

Speaking of proper names, use the locution favored by the owner. In California there's a town called "City of Industry." It's never called "Industry City." You'd think it would be easy to tell, but is it "New York City" or "The City of New York"? I once looked it up, and official documents use both interchangeably, so I guess all of us can.

Stick with the adjunct when it's a useful shorthand for a complicated explanation. For instance safety glass is glass that's designed and manufactured to be less likely to break than ordinary glass and to be less dangerous than ordinary glass when it does break. There's no good alternative.

The inverse are those adjuncts for which we already have perfectly good terms. Is there any reason to say

John has an alcohol problem

instead of

John is an alcoholic?

I'd avoid adjuncts combined with possessives.

The family summer house

is probably fine, but I'd prefer

The selling price of the family summer house


The family summer house's selling price

As you noted, piling up adjuncts is problematical:

The Committee
The Budget Committee
The State Budget Committee
The Illinois State Budget Committee
The Illinois State Budget Committee Evaluation
The Illinois State Budget Committee Evaluation Report
The Illinois State Budget Committee Evaluation Report scandal

The longer the list, the more your readers have to keep in memory before they get to the object of discussion. Where to stop? I'm afraid there's no hard and fast rule.

When adjuncts are nominalizations of verbs, they can undermine the force of the associated verb:

What's clearer

supporting child soldier recruitment suppression


suppressing the recruiting of child soldiers?

I'm sure that skillful writers can add more consideration, and indeed I'm sure some will disagree with my observations.

A final thing: in "table of contents" I'm used to calling contents the object of the preposition, but others call it a prepositional complement.

  • 'First of all, you'll simply have to learn the adjunct pairs that have made it into the language as a unit.' I'm nicking this (when I can decide where to stash it). // An excellent answer: it might even be comprehensive (famous last words). (PS '... has an alcohol problem' is less harsh than '... is an alcoholic'.) Oct 29 '15 at 8:50
  • Dear deadrat, dear Edwin Thank you so much. I will try to keep these things in mind when that problems pops up next time. Oct 29 '15 at 9:09
  • I've read through pretty thoroughly now, and have further observations. (1) I can't find licensing for 'digram' to be used for 'two-word string'. (2) There is usually accepted to be a gradience from free (loose) association (of two etc words in a string) ... weak collocation ... strong collocation ... compound (open ... hyphenated ... closed). And as expected, disagreement over where certain strings appear on that continuum at any point in time. // Without ballooning to the size of a doctoral thesis, though, a fine analysis. Oct 29 '15 at 9:15
  • @EdwinAshworth Thank you. (1) I have only mediocre support for digram as two words: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bigram. I'm open to a better term.
    – deadrat
    Oct 29 '15 at 17:29
  • No, thank you. Little wrong with Wikipedia nowadays. Oct 29 '15 at 18:48

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