My question pertains to the rules, and more specifically the ostensible violation of the rules on the modification of nouns into adjectives.

I sometimes experience difficulty of knowing when to adjective-ify nouns when (1) the adjective immediately precedes the noun in question and (2) the adjective version of the noun exists and is spelled differently.

Take the two examples I came across, surfing on the web:

a) "A journalistic career"

b) "A mathematics career"

Both phrases convey the same relative semantic idea and an almost identical construction bar one detail : in (a) the adjective version of journalist is deployed however in (b) the noun form of mathematics is left unaltered even though it functions as an adjective. The adjectival form of mathematics is obviously mathematical.

Is there a rubric or custom to distinguish when to adjective-ify nouns in these contexts? Or is it completely optional and both camps are valid?

Edit: another illustrative example : Is it correct to say "a gallery of cow pictures" or "a gallery of bovine pictures"?

Edit: My question is about the broader use and abuse of adjectives beyond the examples listed. Is there a hard-and-fast rule?

  • 1
    The phrase analogous to "a mathematics career" would be "a journalism career".
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Apr 18, 2021 at 16:43
  • @Hot Licks , fair but between "a mathematics career" and " a mathematical career" which is correct and why?
    – piccolo
    Commented Apr 18, 2021 at 16:52
  • 1
    I think the usual expression would be "A career in mathematics/journalism" and "a gallery of pictures of cows/cattle". Commented Apr 18, 2021 at 17:03
  • 3
    Adjectives tend to preferentially pick up certain of the many logically possible senses. 'Mathematical' usually refers to 'pertaining directly to mathematical applications ...' rather than the general 'relating to mathematics'. So the maths/mathematics department, not the mathematical department. And certainly not the physical department. An electric bill might be unpleasant, but an electrical bill could be fatal. Commented Apr 18, 2021 at 18:10
  • 1
    “mathematics” and “journalism” careers. Noun adjuncts, not adjectives.
    – StephenS
    Commented Apr 18, 2021 at 20:08

1 Answer 1


Although Lexico gives many examples of the use of mathematical, "Mathematical career" isn't one of them. The same is true of mathematics. However their first example of the use of journalistic is: Brian started his journalistic career with the Northern Echo.

"Journalism career" is certainly feasible but it sounds more awkward than "career in journalism". My guess, and Ngram seems to confirm it, is that a perceived awkwardness is our only guide when choosing one construction over the other.

  • 2
    Galleries of cow pictures are called mooseums of course. Commented Apr 18, 2021 at 17:58
  • ... Their pictures being arranged neatly. // But your answer just offers a guess as to identity of preferred premodifier. And it could be argued to be a chicken-and-egg situation (it sounds awkward because it's not usually used that way). Commented Apr 18, 2021 at 18:02
  • 2
    ...and cattle-ogged.// Now edited to include the words "my guess". (It's 'egg-and-chicken' btw.) Commented Apr 18, 2021 at 18:29
  • If it's down to perceived awkwardness then I guess I just have to // take the bull by the horns and roll with it.
    – piccolo
    Commented Apr 18, 2021 at 18:44

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.