Don’t Use Nouns as Adjectives

In December, 2019, the New York Times Magazine published an article by Heidi Julavits called “What I Learned in Avalanche School.” In it, Heidi repeatedly used awkward constructions that could easily have been fixed by the use of prepositions or the elimination of a word. She is not only an associate professor of writing at Columbia University, she has published several novels and won a PEN New England Fiction Award and a Guggenheim Fellowship. 


One sentence she wrote said, “In many nonavalanche-terrain scenarios, if a person falls into a heuristic trap, the outcome isn’t death.” It is permissible to put the prefix non before any word. But nonavalanche stretches the point and is awkward. But to create an adjective by adding a hyphen and the word terrain produces an unpleasant effect that cries out for revision. The vogue word scenario has no place in good writing.


Further on: “We noted the resistance variation between the layers.” Better: “variation in resistance between…” But we don’t really know if the original sentence meant that they were noting the resistance or noting the variation. She could also say, “We noted the difference in resistance between the layers.” 


All of this can be avoided by not trying to use nouns as adjectives.


She also wrote, “survival strategy,” “many-feet-deep snow,” “avalanche autopsy,” and “tree bough.”