I've noticed that biological scientists tend to use nouns as adjectives when detailing experiments both in writing and in speech.


  1. The experiment was performed "in monkey cortex" instead of "in a monkey's cortex", "in simian cortex", "in the cortex of a monkey" and so on.
  2. I study "rat cognition" instead of "cognition by/in rats" or "rodent cognition".
  3. We used a "mouse model" instead of "murine model", "rodent model".

However, people do say that they study "human cognition" not "people cognition".

One could argue that scientific writing is as it does. Or, that as long as the writing is clear this point is immaterial. But, interchanging nouns and adjectives does exercise some people.

  1. Example 1 beginning on slide 68
  2. Example 2
  3. Example 3 <-- A list of frequent problems in scientific writing

Does this occur in other technical areas?

More speculatively, does it suggest something about grammar simplification, perhaps because many people who grew up speaking different languages must communicate in a technical version of English? Is it just an unnecessary abstraction?

N.B.: I'm not singling out biologists. I just can't speak about any other group firsthand.

  • 1
    -1 I think this is a great question, but what have you done to try to find the answer before posting? Will upvote when edited to show researech.
    – MetaEd
    Aug 25, 2012 at 15:03
  • The short answer is that there are many different kinds of English compound nouns, which follow different rules.The Wikipedia articles on English Compounds and Compound Nouns may resolve some of the misapprehensions displayed here. Aug 25, 2012 at 16:19
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    It's possible in the examples you gave that the writer chose not to use "simian" because that term can include apes and you know that "rodent" includes more than rats. I think the possessives (monkey's and rat's) can get unwieldy in a paper and also tend to focus attention on an individual specimen when the writer might actually be making a generalization about something relating to the entire species. We see the same thing in veterinary writing.
    – JLG
    Aug 25, 2012 at 17:04
  • @JohnLawler: Ah, so you parse "monkey cortex" as a compound noun, similar to "distance learning", instead of and adjective preceding a noun.
    – mac389
    Aug 25, 2012 at 18:06
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    There's no real difference. Any English word can be used as a noun, a verb, or an adjective. The idea that anything that modifies a noun is an adjective is a myth suitable for keeping children from asking questions, but not really relevant to English. Aug 25, 2012 at 18:15

3 Answers 3


I've been editing biomedical writing every day for the past 15 years. That's the way biomedical science writers write. Everybody imitates everybody else. Many of the writers are not native speakers of English, so the language that actually gets printed is a mash of usually outstanding imitations of poor writing by native speakers of English and of English using the structures of the native language of the author. Publishers used to have more money to copyedit manuscripts, but now they not only require the authors to pay for their own copyediting, but also to do a lot of the formatting work. Publishers tend to believe that if they think their journal's readers will understand the point of the paper, that's good enough.

Almost all academic writing is as bad as biomedical writing. It's no longer just the social sciences. All the sciences, humanities, and business articles I read and revise sound the same to me. Academic writers can't seem to write a sentence that doesn't contain at least one phrase like "prior to" (instead of "before"), "plays an important role in" (instead of "is important for/in" or "is involved in"), "due to" (but never "because of"), "for the measurement of" (instead of "to measure"), etc. Very few academic authors care about brevity or clarity of expression, only publication of expression, because publications in the right SCI journals lead to promotions or at least allow them to keep their jobs. Good writing gets them nothing because it takes time and energy and thought, reduces the number of publications possible per year.

These academic scribblers are writing essentially for themselves (Linda Flowers's Writer-Based Prose) and experts in their field, so they often use technical jargon and shop-talk lingo.

Professor Lawler's comments on compound nouns are spot on; however, the problem is not grammar but style. Each usage has to be considered in context, not excised from context. Academic writers, however, generally don't seem to care about style, only content. Compound nouns like "monkey cortex" are perfectly normal and specific; there's no article because "monkey cortex" is treated like "water", a non-count noun phrase. Add a counter (cell or cells) and usage rules change. "Simian cortex" is too vague, too general, too nonspecific, as is "rodent cognition" (if one is studying cognition only in rats). A "murine model" includes both rats and mice, but if the experiment uses only mice, a "mouse model" is better because it's specific.

Biomedical and other technical writing is filled with long and unwieldy phrases that writers like to shorten. I can't blame them for that. I try to do the same thing, especially when the publisher says that there's a word limit for the manuscript. This is one reason for the often annoying compound noun phrases. Another is the annoyance of having to read and write long and unwieldy phrases that can be shortened.

Your examples are all very good. The first summarizes the problems well; the second and third give good advice.

By the way, sometimes "good" and "well" are interchangeable. Some writers and speakers say "It is well to remember X", but others say "It is good to remember X". This is a matter of dialect and style, not grammar. The words function the same way in the sentence. In "Don't sing so loud" and "Don't sing so loudly", loud and loudly function as adverbs of manner but with different forms. Both are acceptable grammatically to most native speakers of English (there's always going to be someone who disagrees, no matter what one says or who says it).

There are dozens of essays in biomedical journals lamenting the sad state of biomedical writing. Don't blame the non-native speakers of English who write biomedical articles in English: they are merely imitating native speakers of English and the essays written by the top people in their field and published, regardless of the quality of the writing, by the professional journals they read. Most non-native speakers can't judge whether writing is good or bad or just mediocre if it's not in their native language; and, frankly, neither can most native speakers judge whether writing is good or bad or just mediocre even if it is in their native language. (Why do so many people buy kitsch and think it's art?)

"Scientific writing is as it does". That seems accurate to me. Scientific writing is often boring and bloated. It bores its readers and makes them want to put the article down without having read the whole thing. But if the content's compelling enough, no one will care at all about the poor style. Then the captive audience will read the garbage-language that science writers and publishers offer them.


You seem to be presupposing that the language owes you some a priori guarantee that it will use adjectives in such compounds. Well, it turns out that English isn't like that: a very common method of forming compounds is to use Noun + Noun. It's not necessarily a trait of scientific writing, but rather a trait of English.

Other languages (e.g. Romance languages), on the other hand, do tend to use adjectives in such cases. Where there is an alternative in English, the adjectival form is often the more 'learned' term. But just because a term is more learned doesn't mean it is necessarily the most appropriate choice: writing in a clear style using words which are more readily recognised by the reader is also a criterion.

[P.S. I'm glossing over the fact that many Adj+N cases may not actually be deemed to be true compounds, depending on the model/definition you adopt. But I guess that's a discussion for another day.]


This comes from a fondness for latin in the beginings of modern science, specifically out of philosophy and law as an academic art.

It is latinized writing in place of daily english.

In the cases you quoted it is used to indicate the research is not purely qualitative, and that they used multiple specimens/subjects in order to infer a general observation on the species as a whole.

  • Please add backing references and/or examples. Jan 12, 2021 at 8:33

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