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Writers Talk About Writing

"Government" Isn't an Adjective, So Why Does It Act Like One?

We're all familiar with those words that modify nouns. Words like big, yellow, northern, and government. They're called adjectives, and their job is to modify the nouns they're next to.


No, government isn't an adjective, but it is a noun that can modify another noun. Witness:

The Republicans are broadly seen as the party of business and of less rather than more government action and regulation. —The Saturday Evening Post (March–April 2012)

Nouns that modify other nouns called attributive nouns.

What Are They?

We don't often think about attributive nouns, but they're all around us:

  • arms race
  • family obligations
  • bank policies

Don't confuse these with compound nouns. In a compound noun, all the words in the compound form one noun, one idea. It's a permanent union. The compound might be open, hyphenated, or closed. Over time, a compound might even progress from open to closed: shell fish, shell-fish, shellfish.

Attributive nouns, on the other hand, can modify more than one noun. They're flexible, temporary pairings that aren't prone to closing up:

  • arms dealer
  • family night
  • bank hours

The earliest examples of attributive nouns appeared in Shakespeare, according to Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, but they remained infrequent until the 19th century. Since then, they've been thriving.

Can I Use Attributive Nouns in Formal Writing?

Of course you can. Although some conservative language users will insist that an adjective be used instead or the noun phrase be rewritten, it's not necessary. These sticklers wouldn't use language deterioration, for example, but a deterioration in the language. There's nothing wrong with a deterioration in the language, of course, but language deterioration is not only immediately understandable, it's also three words shorter.

You'll find attributive nouns most often in journalism and academic and technical writing. In journalism, space is at a premium and attributive nouns generally take up less space: Security cabinet okays Egypt attack helicopters in Sinai. In academic and technical writing, authors are dealing with complex concepts. Attributive noun phrases, such as haloacetic acid concentrations, allow writers to refer to these concepts in an efficient and understandable way.

Should I Use Adjectives or Attributive Nouns?

A Copyediting reader asked me a while back whether the adjective or the noun form should be used when both are available. Should it be southeast corner or southeastern corner, he wondered.

As far as I could determine, there's no rule about when to use the adjective form over the noun form. Both are correct and acceptable. Use whichever form sounds best to your ear, and then be consistent within your document.

Can I Use Plural Forms Attributively?

Singular nouns seem to be the default choice for modifying other nouns. Some singular nouns with plural constructions even lose their plural form when used attributively, as with pant leg. Others, however, keep it, as with physics exam.

But there are exceptions, and they seem to be multiplying. Longman's Grammar of Spoken and Written English spells out the situations when plural noun forms are used attributively (examples Longman's):

  • When the plural form has a meaning different from the singular form's meaning: arts administrator
  • When the modifier is made up of more than one word: pubs and hotels group
  • When the modifier or the whole phrase is a proper noun: FBI Exhibits Section
  • When the modifier is quoted speech: Toyota's "terms" scheme
  • When the phrase is part of a news headline: Rules change on pets likely

How Many Is Too Many?

You can use more than one noun to modify another noun, but do so with care. It can be useful to use a couple of modifiers before a noun: very good book. The more modifiers—be they nouns, adjectives, or adverbs—the more difficult it is for the reader to parse what's been said.

This is because those modifiers usually don't all modify the head noun individually. It's more likely that one modifier is modifying another or that they're working together as one modifier. When the phrase gets to the point where you don't know which word is modifying which other word, you've got a noun pileup, and it's time to clear the road.

For reasons stated earlier, journalism and academic and technical writing tend to use longer modifier strings. Whenever possible, though, keep the strings to a minimum to help your readers understand what you're trying to say.

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Erin Brenner is the founder of Right Touch Editing, a customizable editing service. She has been an editing professional for over 15 years and is sought after for her expertise in language mechanics. She works on a variety of media in all levels of editing. In addition, she provides bite-sized lessons to improve your writing on her blog The Writing Resource and is the editor of Copyediting.com, which offers advice and training for those who edit copy. Follow her on Twitter at @ebrenner or on Facebook. Click here to read more articles by Erin Brenner.

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Comments from our users:

Monday August 13th 2012, 4:03 PM
Comment by: Jan D. (Lower Hutt New Zealand)
Hi Erin,

There is a small mistake under 'How Many is Too Many?', 'You can use more than one noun to modifier another noun', should probably have read 'You can use more than one noun to modify another noun'. [Fixed! —Ed.]

Love reading about how the english language works. English is my second language and it always surprises me how different languages have evolved and do different languages affect the way people see the world.

I speak four languages and have noticed that english is highly context driven. This makes things like attributive nouns sometimes harder to place for people who have english as their second language and is probably also why I am probably a 'stickler' myself and write things the old fashioned way. While an example like 'language deterioration' may be unambiguous, I have come across examples (even though I really can't think of one right at this moment) where there is context needed to understand what is meant. In dutch (my first language) there is no such things as attributive nouns, which makes dutch less ambiguous in nature, but also definitely more boring to read.

Your article was a very interesting read. Thanks.

Wednesday August 15th 2012, 5:14 PM
Comment by: catwalker (Ottawa Canada)
Re adjectives vs attributive nouns, I have puzzled about this myself: mystery novel vs. mysterious novel. One of the radio stations in my area continually refers to eastern Ontario and west Quebec. The latter always sounds to me like it is supposed to be a proper name.

I think German also lets nouns modify nouns, but they run the words together straight away: University professor =
Thursday August 16th 2012, 4:37 PM
Comment by: Erin B. (Haverhill, MA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks, Jan.

catwalker, I think there's a difference between a "mystery novel" and a "mysterious novel." The former is a type of literature: it's a story about a mystery. The latter is a novel that is somehow strange or unknowable; it doesn't have to have a mystery as its story. Maybe if we had stuck closer to German rules, we wouldn't be so confused all the time!

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