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Which word order should I choose in noun phrases with a proper noun component and a common noun component?

  • the Elvis Presley singer v. the singer Elvis Presley

  • the Star Wars movie v. the movie Star Wars

  • the Thames River v. the River Thames

  • the Lisp programming language v. the programming language Lisp

  • the x variable v. the variable x

  • Please add a finite verb to your question. – tchrist Jan 14 at 16:47
  • @tchrist Do you mean the post title? – Maggyero Jan 14 at 17:15
  • No, to the body. You forgot to include a finite verb. – tchrist Jan 14 at 17:15
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    Thanks. So it is a complete sentence with a finite verb. – tchrist Jan 14 at 17:30
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Incomplete answer:

  • You can't say "the Elvis Presley singer" to mean "the singer named Elvis Presley".

  • For rivers, the word "River" tends to come last. E.g. in the United States the "Mississippi River" and "Missouri River" are pretty much never named with the reverse order. But it depends on the specific river; the Thames is one where "the River Thames" is common.

  • "the Lisp programming language" and "the programming language Lisp" mean the same thing, and are both pretty normal word orders.

  • "the variable x" seems like a more usual word order to me. "the x variable" would probably show up most often in contexts where it is used to mean "the variable on the x-axis".

I think that your question covers two distinct constructions:

  • the attributive construction. In this construction, a noun, "N-bar" or "nominal" (sorry, I don't know a good, non-confusing term for this, but I wouldn't call it a "noun phrase" because it cannot contain an article) is used to modify a following noun, "N-bar" or "nominal"; the combination acts as an "N-bar" or "nominal" and can be preceded by an article. The meaning of an "attributive" construction is vague: it tells you that the head noun is of a "type" that is somehow related to the attributive noun, but it doesn't tell you the nature of the relationship. "Baby oil" is oil for using on babies, but "olive oil" is oil made from olives.

  • Apposition, a construction where two noun phrases that identify the same entity but in different ways are placed next to each other.

Attributives

"The Star Wars movie" is an attributive construction: it brackets as "the [[Star Wars] movie]", and means something like "the movie of a type related to Star Wars". This doesn't necessarily mean "the movie named Star Wars": for example, during the time frame when the movie titled Rogue One: A Star Wars Story was playing in theaters, you might have heard someone say "I'm planning to go to see the Star Wars movie with my family tomorrow".

"The x variable" also seems to me to be most naturally interpreted as an attributive construction, bracketed as "the [[x] variable]"; this may explain the conjecture about its meaning that I mentioned above, where it would be expected to mean "the variable on the x-axis" = "the variable of a type related to x (= related to the x axis)".

I suppose that "the [[Lisp] programming language]" and "the [[Thames] River]" (or "river"?) are also attributive constructions, although I'm less sure about these.

Apposition

"The movie Star Wars" is not an attributive-noun construction and it is not bracketed as "[the [movie [Star Wars]]]". Rather, is an appositional construction, bracketed as "[the movie] [Star Wars]".

I think that "[the singer] [Elvis Presley]", "[the River] [Thames]", "[the programming language] [Lisp]" and "[the variable] [x]" are also appositional constructions.

The proper-noun component does not always come first in an appositional construction:

  • John the Baptist (the whole thing here functions as a larger proper noun)

  • Elvis Presley, the singer, …

  • Lisp, the programming language, …

There seem to be some restrictions: neither "Thames, the river" nor "x, the variable" sound acceptable to me, and "Star Wars, the movie" sounds awkward. When the non-proper-noun part is longer, it may sound more acceptable to put it second: "x, the variable that we will be examining next," or "Star Wars, the movie that started a popular franchise" sound better. Likewise, something like "Elvis Presley, the famous singer, …" sounds more natural than just "Elvis Presley, the singer, …".

  • The "River Thames" examples are difficult, because the river's name is the River Thames. I was deliberate in my use of capitals and lower-case in my answer: you can't say "Thames River" because that's not its name; you could say "Thames river" where river is a common noun. – Andrew Leach Jan 13 at 18:10
  • So "the Star Wars movie" does not necessarily refer to the same movie as "the movie Star Wars" (the latter referencing specifically the movie that started the popular franchise)? Would "the Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace movie" be a valid construction? – Maggyero Jan 15 at 7:08
  • @Maggyero: sorry for the late response: yes, the meaning of "the Star Wars movie" depends on the context, and could refer to another movie like The Force Awakens. " "The Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace movie" doesn't sound right to me. I recently remembered where I had run into an argument about the usage of "appositive", so I will add a link soon to that discussion. – sumelic Jan 15 at 7:10
  • @Maggyero: The following comment thread is the reason why I was apprehensive about using the word "appositive": english.stackexchange.com/questions/461237/… But after reviewing it, I see that constructions like "the singer Elvis Presley" would fall into the category of "appositive" even according to BillJ. – sumelic Jan 15 at 7:14
  • So could we say that the rule for the attributive construction is that you cannot use a singular attributive phrase? (Star Wars refers to several entities but The Force Awakens not.) While the rule for the appositive construction is that there is no such restriction. – Maggyero Jan 15 at 7:19
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Generally, a nominative descriptor like "Elvis Presley" comes after its "noun" because the noun is an attributive noun which functions like an adjective and adjectives generally precede the noun they modify.

That is, you are referring to the singer Elvis Presley rather than the ventriloquist Elvis Presley; this is akin to referring to a door frame rather than a window frame.

There will always be exceptions (and your example with Lisp may well be one), and especially where the name includes its attributive noun (like Ermine Street — note the two capital letters); but generally the "noun" will actually be functioning as an adjective and should come first.

One might sail on the River Thames or the Thames river. In the first case, the full name is River Thames; in the second, Thames is an attributive noun qualifying which river you're referring to. Attributive nouns precede the noun they modify, and because Thames is a proper name it retains its capital letter.

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    I don't think I agree that "singer" acts like an adjective in "the singer Elvis Presley". If it did, I guess we would have to say that it does not go with the definite article, since adjectives and attributive nouns are not used with articles. But my intuition is that in a normal context, it is divided as "[the singer] Elvis Presley" rather than as "the [singer] Elvis Presley". I disagree that in such contexts, "(the) singer" functions to specify which Elvis Presley we are talking about; I think that it just provides additional information about who he is. – sumelic Jan 13 at 14:01
  • I don't unfortunately remember or have access to any good sources right now, but based on my hazy recollection I think that "the singer Elvis Presley" is an appositive construction, where "the singer" and "Elvis Presley" are both noun phrases that refer to the same thing. Likewise for "the movie Star Wars", "the River Thames", "the programming language Lisp", "the variable x". This is a different construction from the attributive noun + head noun construction, which is used in "the Star Wars movie" or "the Lisp programming language". – sumelic Jan 13 at 14:07
  • Thanks Andrew Leach and @sumelic. First is it correct to say that in the expression "the singer Elvis Presley", [the singer] is a common name, [Elvis Presley] is a proper name and the whole expression is a proper name? – Maggyero Jan 13 at 14:15
  • @Maggyero: the usual term is "common noun" rather than "common name". I wouldn't call "the singer Elvis Presley" a proper name; I would say that only the part "Elvis Presley" is a proper name. Proper names tend to be capitalized in English, but it's not correct to capitalize "singer" in that context. – sumelic Jan 13 at 14:41
  • @sumelic I used 'name' instead of 'noun' in 'common name' as I read on Wikipedia that 'noun' is restricted to single words while name is not. So if the expression "the singer Elvis Presley" (or should I say "the singer Elvis Presley" expression?) is not a proper name, it is a common name, isn't it? – Maggyero Jan 13 at 14:46

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