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I think one of the attractions kids and teens have with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (TMNT) is that the name itself is quirky and sounds fun. Those particular words mashed together are sort of an absurdity. An adjective followed by three unlikely juxtaposed nouns -- it's just weird. But is it grammatically correct? I've always thought it to be, until last night when I happened to hear it, and it didn't sound right.

Extended noun phrases are uncommon in English. As I understand it, they are common in Finnish and German (and probably other languages as well). They even remove the spaces between the words of the phrase. In English, though, it sounds, well, "off".

I understand the fun-factor is in itself a marketing tool. Around 1990 a TMNT movie came out. To take advantage of the brand awareness, a commercial bakery began mass-producing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Cookies. They came in a bag like Oreos. If that's okay, how far can you take it? Can one speak of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Cookies bag? And the bag has a label -- TMNT Cookies bag label??

This is a current topic. I could not find a page talking about the prepackaged, ready-to-eat TMNT cookies already discussed. But I did find this: Betty Crocker Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Shell-Shocked Sugar Cookie Mix. (I think I'll buy and make it, and save the BCTMNTSSSCM box. 😍 ) Let's see -- 8 nouns, 1 adjective, and one compound adjective. They are taking the "fun name" concept to a whole new level. But again, can that be correct?

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    I don't think it's "[an] adjective followed by three nouns" - as I read it, the noun is turtles, and the first three words progressively modify it, so it's more like a nested noun phrase consisting of three adjectives and a noun: teenage [mutant (ninja tutles)].
    – Lawrence
    Jan 24, 2017 at 14:19
  • As for Betty Crocker ..., remember the buffalo. :)
    – Lawrence
    Jan 24, 2017 at 14:24
  • Agreed. In prose rather than "branded" you would write teenage, mutant, ninja turtles
    – Stu W
    Jan 24, 2017 at 14:24
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    @StuW would we? Would someone actually write, "boy band, lead singer" as opposed to "boy band lead singer"?
    – RichF
    Jan 24, 2017 at 14:28
  • No. Apples and oranges. Teenage and mutant and ninja turtles vs. boy and band and lead singer, "boy band* is being used as a compound adjective and in theory could be hyphenated; "lead singer" is now used as a compound noun as a specific type of vocalist. In theory, you wouldn't use comma for {boy band, lead singer such as boy band and lead singer}
    – Stu W
    Jan 24, 2017 at 14:52

1 Answer 1

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There are a couple of ways of analyzing the noun phrase 'Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles'.

The first unsatisfying way is to claim that it is a one-time invention or idiom that was created rather desultorily, and as an invention (or idiom) it is correct by fiat. Even though it might be out of order according to conventional rules, it is grammatical because that ordering is the way it is created to be. This is unsatisfying because you are looking for a reason for that particular sequence and this justification works for anything.

The second way, which I think is closer to what you seek, is to analyze according to the rules of ordering adjectives. You can find this addressed quite well here at "What is the rule for adjective order?". To combine the slight variations there, the general rule in English is

article, number, judgement/attitude, size/length/height, age, color, origin, material, purpose, attributive-noun, target noun

All that is needed is to judge each of our modifiers to be these roles.

One may have more than one of each role and then anything goes (subject to vague 'sounds better' rules).

And there may be difficulty in assigning role.

  • 'teenage' is pretty obviously an age
  • 'mutant' is ... hm, is that an adjective or a noun? If it is an adjective it seems likely to be one of judgement (coming earlier in the order). But it feels more like a noun.
  • 'ninja' is a noun, so it acts as an attributive noun here
  • 'turtle' is the target noun

If you accept mutant as a noun then teenage comes first, then mutant and ninja could be in either order, followed by turtle. 'Teenage ninja mutant turtles', ignoring the prominence of the existing idiom, I think sounds fine. But the one we hear everyday sounds fine also.

So the end judgement is that the ordering is grammatical.

Of course, your inner assignment of roles to these words may well be different ad that may account for your questioning.

As a side note, newspaper headlines tend to convert numerous qualifiers into a pile-up of attributive nouns which tends to overwhelm our parsing mechanisms, but presumably they are parsable somehow to be considered 'correct' as in "Slough sausage choke baby death woman jailed". TMNT is just a large mouthful to swallow and because of that sounds 'off'.

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  • Thank you. I find it hard to believe anyone finds that newspaper headline to be "parsable". I don't think many Americans have even heard of "slough sausage", so that doesn't help my inner parser. 🤠 // I have always interpreted "mutant" to be a noun. We tend to use "mutated" to be the adjectival form (e.g. "mutated virus"). I never thought of the order "teenage ninja mutant turtles", but I agree that it would sound fine.
    – RichF
    Jan 24, 2017 at 17:31
  • What's the difference between teenage and teenaged?
    – tchrist
    Jan 24, 2017 at 18:47
  • I think "mutant" is an attributive noun in this context as well. No?
    – verbose
    Jan 24, 2017 at 19:08
  • I know that examples of origin adjectives generally refer someplace you can point to on a map (French, northern, etc.). But if we take it in its comic book, origin story sense then mutant could be an adjective and belong right where it is.
    – 1006a
    Jan 24, 2017 at 20:27
  • @tchrist They are equivalent, but I believe teenage is the more common form. Where would the "d" come from in converting "teenager" to an adjective? See teenaged.
    – RichF
    Jan 24, 2017 at 21:16

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