Nouns, Nouns, and More Nouns!

I’ve written about this in another entry. But the trouble is so widespread that I will add to that entry here. The first entry on this subject was called “Don’t Use Nouns as Adjectives” and was an attempt to point out a particular sin involving the misuse of nouns. This entry takes another step or two.


The struggle against this pestilence has a long history. H. W. Fowler in A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, first published in 1926, wrote, “if a large vehicle fleet were translated into either a large fleet of vehicles or a fleet of large vehicles an ambiguity would be removed.”


Wilson Follett in Modern American Usage (1966) called this sort of trouble, tongue in cheek, a “noun-plague,” using the noun “noun” as an adjective to modify the noun “plague.” (The argument could be made that the hyphen turns it into a single noun, but “a plague of nouns” would be better.)


Follett’s point is a subtle one. Using language well is about exciting the senses to produce meaning. Exciting the senses is about movement. And to the extent that writing is static, it “dulls narrative and description” and produces “an impoverishment of experience.” 


So his argument is generally against using static nouns in place of active verbs. He begins with the simple example of instructions on an envelope to “apply pressure to seal.”


Apply pressure,” he says, “is a weak indirection for press down.” And the more complicated the attempt on the part of misguided writers, the more unwieldy the structure grows.


This sentence, from Fowler, is about testing food. “Strangeness of samples has been shown to lead to relative rejection of products in the comparative absence of clues to a frame of reference within which judgement may take place.”


This is not merely a case of using nouns as adjectives. It amounts to high crimes and misdemeanors against the language. Here the author has constructed great abstractions by compounding nouns. For example, a quantity or thing that we cannot know is created by “Strangeness of samples,” and it somehow leads to a thing called “relative rejection.” None of this falls within the realm of human experience.


In other words, it is incomprehensible nonsense.


In a similar vein, Fowler faults writers for “using a long string of words as a sort of adjectival sea serpent (e.g. a large vehicle fleet operator mileage restriction has now been made imperative.)


So by now you should be able to tell what’s wrong with this: 


“The prediction of the existence of antiparticles was made by P.A.M. Dirac in 1927 and its confirmation was an important reason for the construction of the Bevatron at Berkeley in 1954.”