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8.8 Avoid over-use of noun strings

See 8.8 of the Checklist »

A noun string is a row of nouns or adjectives. For example, “special education delivery programme outputs”.

Nouns are words that name things; adjectives describe things.

Each word in a noun string adds meaning to the last noun in the row. That means all but the last word are turned into adjectives.

A noun string can be difficult to read. A reader may think they have found the main noun when the word is just describing something else.

The relationship between the words in a noun string is often unclear. For example:

  • Is a “legislation system analysis” an analysis of the legislation system or a system analysis of legislation?
  • Is a “sensitive protein function monitoring system” a system for monitoring the function of sensitive proteins or a sensitive system for monitoring the functions of proteins?

How bad is the string?

Length and complexity

The longer the string, the bigger the headache. More than 3 words in a string is usually too many.

Also consider the choice of words in the string. By stringing together long or complex words, you can make a headache into a migraine.

Unfamiliar words

Another factor to consider is whether the intended audience is familiar with the words. For example, consider the string “unsecured debt security” in legislation used by lawyers in the financial markets industry. A reader will likely intuitively link “debt” and “security” (as a kind of financial product) and will understand what “unsecured” means. However, if the string appears in a consumer context, a reader may be confused about what an unsecured security is.

Breaking a string

It is fairly easy to fix a noun string. First, try leaving out any nouns or adjectives that you don’t really need.

Or follow these steps:

  1. move the last noun to the front or near to the front
  2. change 1 or more of the nouns (or occasionally adjectives) into a verb
  3. add small words to clarify the relationships between the words (eg, “to”, “for”, or “of”)
  4. use hyphens to clarify the relationship between the words.

In the improved version, the words in bold are verbs.

cross.gif special education delivery programme outputs
tick.gif outputs for delivering special education
cross.gif draft protected foreign objects regulations
tick.gif draft regulations to protect foreign objects
cross.gif adventure activity safety procedures development project
tick.gif project to develop safe procedures for adventure activities
cross.gif consumers fair treatment plan 
tick.gif plan for treating consumers fairly
cross.gif New Zealand financial markets performance monitoring scheme
tick.gif scheme to monitor the performance of the financial markets in New Zealand
cross.gif independent child school travel safety improvement report
tick.gif report on improving the safety of children who travel independently to school

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