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 "pragmatic strengthening", "open compound", "weak/strong collocation", 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
    Jun 1 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
    Jun 1 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. Jun 2 at 2:12
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    Are you wanting a term specific to linguistics, or a general term for all two-word expressions? And excluding three-word expressions like "past perfect tense" or "Great Vowel Shift"?
    – Stuart F
    Jun 2 at 8:27
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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. Jun 2 at 11:57

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
    Jun 5 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
    Jun 5 at 21:45

Perhaps you're looking for the term rhetorical device?

A rhetorical device is any language that helps an author or speaker achieve a particular purpose (usually persuasion, since rhetoric is typically defined as the art of persuasion). But “rhetorical device” is an extremely broad term, and can include techniques for generating emotion, beauty, and spiritual significance as well as persuasion.


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