worksheet

Lesson 5
Unraveling Adjective-Noun Strings, Reducing Preposition Sprawl

A problem closely related to excessive use of jargon is excessive use of "adjective-noun strings"--that is, long strings of words that stack up in an attempt to modify a single word. These strings are common in science, technology, industry, and government. But that doesn't make them good professional style. They may sound impressive (if you allow yourself to be impressed by that sort of thing), but they are hard to decipher and are therefore bad style.

Here's a fairly simple example:
employee compensation level evaluation procedures

Tell the truth: didn't your brain stick and sputter over that phrase a couple times before you grasped its meaning? I'd have made your reading task easier if I'd written:
procedures for evaluating the compensation level of employees

Now unravel this string:
military trainee firing range regulations orientation manual

You should have come up with something like:
manual for orienting trainees to the regulations of a military firing range

The fundamental technique for unraveling adjective-noun strings is to read them backwards and break them into smaller modifying units, using prepositional phrases and sometime entire clauses. However, using this reversal technique doesn't mean that you always reverse the exact word order represented in the adjective-noun string, as you'll see in Exercise 1. Still, for many adjective-noun strings, a straight back-to-front flip (peppered with a few prepositions and articles) is all that's needed:
building radon source location method

We know the writer is telling us about some kind of method. A method for locating something. Locating what? The source of something. The source of what? Radon. What kind of radon? Radon in buildings. So, flipping the adjective-noun string front to back, we get:
method for locating the source of radon in buildings

Much easier to read, don't you agree?

Another technique for unraveling adjective-noun strings is to hyphenate chunks in the strings to show better modification: "Oil bearing shale deposits" becomes "oil-bearing shale deposits," lest your reader think you mean: "oil that bears shale deposits." There's a big difference between a man-eating shark and a man eating shark.

Remember, the rule is to hyphenate bundles of modifying words when they fall before the word they modify: "a pea-green boat" versus "a boat that was pea green."

You may argue that the first versions in all these examples are shorter than the second; am I not violating my own principle of "fat trimming"? Shouldn't professional communications be as brief as possible? Well, yes and no. Certainly, they should get the job done with as much economy, power, and persuasiveness as possible. But what IS the job? Saving space on paper or on a computer screen? No! The job is always to supply the reader's needs, and/or accomplish your persuasive purpose, while exhausting a minimum of the reader's mental energy.

True, in the previous four units I've urged you to use active voice, denominalize, trim fat, and reduce jargon, all of which tend to reduce sentence length at the same time they make sentences easier to read and information easier to assimilate and remember. But with unraveling adjective-noun strings, the task of making sentences easier to read happens to increase sentence length a little. Don't worry about that. I repeat: your goal as a communicator should be to supply the reader's needs, and/or accomplish your persuasive purpose, while exhausting a minimum of the reader's mental energy.

This is not a new idea. Over a century ago, Herbert Spencer argued this idea persuasively in an essay entitled "The Philosophy of Style." In that essay, Spencer points out that the more energy a reader must expend in wrestling with the form of a communication, the less energy he has available to expend upon its content. Conversely, the less mental energy he must expend in grappling with a communication's form, the more he'll have available to devote to its content. You definitely want the folks reading your communications to fall into category "B."

Why do adjective-noun strings exhaust so much of the reader's mental energy? Precisely because such strings pack nouns and modifiers together like figs and nuts, without doing enough to show us the relationship between the parts; consequently, they leave the reader to do the work of unpacking and sorting.

The other good reason to break up long adjective-noun strings is that they are often ambiguous, as we saw in the example of "man eating shark" and "oil bearing shale."

Let's deal with the following adjective-noun string in its full sentence context:

New motorcycle motor durability equipment tests are being performed by engineers.

This could mean:

Engineers are using new equipment to test the durability of motorcycle motors,
or:
Engineers are performing new tests on the equipment that makes motorcycle motors durable
,
or:
Engineers are performing tests on the equipment that checks the durability of new motorcycle motors,

--or several other things. Often, if you are editing (or simply reading) the prose of another professional who is prone to express himself in adjective-noun strings, you will have to ask for clarification.

Very well! Let's see how you do at unraveling the following adjective-noun strings. As always, type your answer before looking at mine.

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