While browsing EL&U I sometimes see people pointing out in their answer that some words have been used in an unusual way (or should I call it structure?), producing sentences like "the writer is using singular they / historical present / exclusive or / concessive may".

Sometimes, instead of being the word that's being used in a specific way, the noun in this adj+noun couple is just the name of the structure - like "Saxon genitive" (instead of being a "Saxon S") or "attributive noun", "open compound", etc.

Often, these adj+noun couples are very fancy and highly technical, like in the examples above.

Is there an umbrella term that encompasses all these adj+noun combinations that seem so common in linguistic discourse?

I sometimes need to ask people about what describes a part of discourse, so knowing what they are called would be useful.

Please note that I am not talking about the names of verbal tenses, but it's entirely possible they fall under the same umbrella.

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    Such terms exist in pretty much every field; I don't think there's a specific name for them, other than "linguistics terminology" or "grammatical terms."
    – alphabet
    Commented Jun 1, 2023 at 23:45
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    (Some people here are Real Actual Linguists and they have the best words. The rest of us are just pretending.)
    – alphabet
    Commented Jun 1, 2023 at 23:48
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    It's not just grammar or linguistics; go to a good hardware store and point to anything. You'll see that it has a name like that, sometimes much more fanciful than you'd expect. It's just the necessity of naming; the more things there are, the more ways there are to talk about them, and the longer their full names get. Commented Jun 2, 2023 at 2:12
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    It's a start to realise that [adjective] + [noun] strings exhibit cohesiveness along a continuum which can be approximated: free combination (eg 'small fish') ... weak collocation ( 'lowish income') ... strong collocation ('casual acquaintance') ... open compound ('mobile phone'). See compounds and phrases: compound nouns vs free combinations vs collocations. The semantic relation between the adjective and the noun can be of more than a few types. Commented Jun 2, 2023 at 11:57
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    The terms you ask about do not collocate. They seem to be all over the board. That's the problem.
    – Lambie
    Commented Jun 2, 2023 at 18:08

2 Answers 2


This is generally referred to in cognitive science as categorization, and the adj+noun version specifically as subordinate categorization. A subordinate category is a subset of a category. For instance, phillips-head screwdriver is a subordinate of the category screwdriver. A specific screwdriver is an instance of a phillips-head screwdriver.

There are many open research problems in this area. In your case, you're applying something normally applied to the study of language to the results of the study of language, but the problems are quite general to language and concept development.


  • When I see someone pointing out that a certain sequence of words is being used in a special way that has a name, I don't think they are pointing out the "characterization" of that sequence of words, or are they? If I had the sequence of words and I wanted to know the name of the special way they're being used, would I ask for their "characterization"? It wouldn't feel natural to me, but maybe it's the right way to say it. Does my description in this comment fit your definition?
    – Zachiel
    Commented Jun 5, 2023 at 21:17
  • Categorization, not characterization. The issue at hand is that objects, concepts, ideas and more are assigned into hierarchical categories. There is a good summary article on wikipedia: en.wikibooks.org/wiki/Cognitive_Science:_An_Introduction/….
    – jimm101
    Commented Jun 5, 2023 at 21:45

It is a type of binning. When you have a category and you divide it up into subcategories (bins) and then give the bins labels. Thus historical in historical present has been appropriated as a bin label. It doesn't have to be an adjective, it can be anything that is recognizable as a label first, and whose aptness as a modifier and consistency with it's normal meaning is incidental. The whiz in whiz deletion is just a complete invention (wh-word + is).

  • Really, Phil? When did 'binning' enter the language? Commented Feb 7 at 0:33
  • @RobbieGoodwin Common enough by 2018 to use on GUIs. 'The radio buttons labeled Binning Factor can be selected individually to enable a method of signal-to-noise ratio improvement commonly used with scientific CCD cameras, in which the signal-generated charge from groups of neighboring pixels is combined during readout into larger "superpixels". ' microscopyu.com/tutorials/ccd-signal-to-noise-ratio "bucketing" is the same thing. They are used interchangeably.
    – Phil Sweet
    Commented Feb 7 at 21:03
  • Really, Phil? D'you not think if a word entered the language as late as 2018, it behooved you to point that out in the first place? Commented Feb 7 at 23:17
  • @RobbieGoodwin It entered the language ages ago, but it is becoming more well known outside of math algorithm theory and design. ieeexplore.ieee.org/abstract/document/266792
    – Phil Sweet
    Commented Feb 8 at 19:18
  • Could you be more clear, please? I still think if a word entered the language as late as 2018, it behooved you to point that out in the first place. Now I also suggest, if it entered the language 'ages ago' it certainly behooves you to say at least roughly when, or to acknowledge you're queering the pitch. I guess that here, 'ages ago' can't mean either 1,000 or 10 so what? Are you suggesting 'binning' entered the language about 100 years ago? Commented Feb 8 at 20:47

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