In an article about the increased unprofitability of Victoria Beckham's fashion business the following appears :

The company is controlled by Mrs Beckham and her former England footballer husband David.

ITV - 27th November 2019

At first reading, I assumed that I had simply not noticed a celebrity divorce in my day to day news-reading. Then I wondered if he now played for Scotland. And I finished with a query about what sport David now participates in.

Or . . . . could he now be called John ?

Is there a term for this ambiguous attachment of an adjective that could well be associated with any of the four nouns that follow ?

  • 3
    I don't know a term for it.
    – Colin Fine
    Nov 27, 2019 at 15:51
  • 3
    The string consists of stacked modifiers, About which the Wayfield Handbook of Technical and Scientific Writing has this to say: 'Stacked Modifiers and Nouns ... Avoid using long strings of modifiers or nouns. These stacked modifiers and nouns can be hard to read and sometimes create ambiguity. Add a few words (especially prepositions and conjunctions) to make the relationships between nouns clear to the reader.' And which have been covered before. But I'd avoid excessive stacked modifier ambiguity. Nov 27, 2019 at 16:10
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    @EdwinAshworth Yes - better would be "her husband David, the former England footballer". David probably still plays football, if only with kids in the park. And as far as I know he is still an Englishman. So neither "England", nor "footballer" can, by themselves be regarded as "former".
    – WS2
    Nov 27, 2019 at 16:21
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    @Nigel J I'm using 'sequential' to mean in a given order, but all modifying the head noun. Cumulative or coordinate. A nice little old lady?. / _Dull, incessant throbbing. 'Stacked' to mean again in a given order, but now where one modifier may be modifying another as in the example given ([England footballer], for instance). Nov 27, 2019 at 19:02
  • 1
    @EdwinAshworth "Stacked order ambiguity" does sound like a pretty legit (if unofficial) way to describe it. That's worth putting down as an answer, I'd say. Nov 28, 2019 at 8:53

1 Answer 1


The NP

her former England footballer husband David

comprises a smaller NP her former England footballer husband and two nominals former England footballer husband and David:

[NP [NP her [Nominal former England footballer husband]] [Nominal David]]

According to The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (Page 447) by Huddleston and Pullum, David is an appositive modifier that post-modifies the smaller NP.

The first nominal can be called a complex nominal, which a paper titled "Rethinking the Semantics of Complex Nominals" defines as follows:

a sequence of one or more nouns or adjectives preceding a head noun. Instances of such a construction include apple pie, information retrieval system, computer book sale, former political activist, etc.

As this Language Log post shows, the ambiguity of a complex nominal does not necessarily arise from having an adjective but from having a combination of multiple words including a head noun with or without one or more adjectives.

So the term you're looking for may be 'complex nominal' itself.

For the intended interpretation of the complex nominal in the ITV article, the complex nominal should be figured out as follows:

[[former [England footballer]] husband]

Where England footballer and former England footballer are also complex nominals.

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