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August 04, 2011  |  Fun (or not) with noun stacks  |  148356 hit(s)

A writing problem that technical writers (among others[1]) seem to be particularly prone to is the noun stack — a kind of nominal train wreck that it can take an editorial Jaws of Life to untangle.

Here are a few that we've run across recently:
  • data bound control table row action links
  • failed password security question answer attempts limit
  • reduced minimum OS partition space available requirement (thanks to colleague David for this excellent example)
(One of my editor friends jokes that in German, these would all be one word: Das ReducedminimumOSpartitionspaceavailablerequirement. Haha.)

Probably it's obvious why these are a problem, but let's review:
  • Hard to parse, omg.
  • Unclear — the more qualifiers are thrown into the phrase, the harder it can become to sort out which term qualifies which other term.

Why do we see these so often? I can think of a couple of reasons. One is that traditionally, technical writing prized terseness; this is particularly true in API/reference documentation, where we dispense even with complete sentences:

The desire for compactness can lead writers, apparently, to jam up adjectives before the noun instead of expanding the phrase in other, more reader-friendly ways.

Another reason is that technical writing often involves trying to achieve a high degree of precision, which in circumstances like this can lead to qualifying, and then over-qualfying, a noun. A writer-turned-editor once described it this way: "Somehow — and I know how this goes, I was there — when you generate text, you have this idea that maybe some more explanation will help."

Noun stacks are not always easy to untangle. Sometimes a cheap fix is to throw a hyphen or two into it to at least clarify the relationships:

data bound control table row action links

might become:

data-bound control-table row-action links

Still a noun stack, but a slightly clearer one.

A slightly more meta tactic is to question whether all the elements are even necessary, responding to the "more text is better" problem. So, for example:

failed password security question answer attempts limit

might become:

security-question attempts limit

Obviously, this has to be done very carefully and with the input of the author. In my experience, authors are generally open to this type of reduction after some editorial discsussion (and some moments of reflection; they're readers, too, after all) to reassure them that the reader will still clearly understand what the author meant.

The nuclear option, of course, is to rewrite the phrase. This can be hard without just turning the original stack into a stack of prepositional phrases and relative clauses, which surely would be no improvement. But let's give it a go with this:

reduced minimum OS partition space available requirement

Perhaps this can be recast/rewritten as:

reduction in the requirement for the minimum space that is available on an OS partition

(You can kinda see why the author wanted to compress this into a noun stack in the first place.)

It's quite fair to use alternative terms in the search for clarity:

reduced OS-partition free-space requirement

reduced requirement for free space on an OS partition

(your rewrite here)

As with removing elements from the noun stack, you'd want to do this with the very close cooperation of the author, lest you change the meaning of the phrase. I'm by no means confident, for example, that these various rewrites are 100% accurate renderings of the original.

Ok, now for the fun part. When I ran across "failed password security question answer attempts limit" recently, I showed it to some of my colleagues as an impressively long noun stack. (7 words!) This led to a succession of emails that went like this:
You should have a contest, then you could crown the All-time Microsoft-wide noun-stack contest winner.

... and award that person the All-time Microsoft-wide noun-stack contest-winner prize.

... at the All-time Microsoft-wide noun-stack contest-winner prize ceremony.

... which we could follow on the All-time Microsoft-wide noun-stack contest-winner prize-ceremony TV coverage.

Admittedly, editorial fun is of a special kind. Still, if you have spend all day looking at this stuff, you gotta grab fun wherever you can find it ...

Update 5 Aug 2011 If you didn't happen to get here from the Language Log in the first place, you might find it interesting to read the comment thread about this post that the LL habitués have been conducting. Lots of great thots about all this.

[1] I don't know for sure that tech writing is more prone to noun stacks than, say, journalism, but the examples I run across all seem to be from technical writing, academic writing, and bureaucratese.

Berna Bleeker   05 Aug 11 - 12:53 AM

I am a translator, and I often have to translate those noun stacks. I hate them! I translate into Dutch, and I can't translate them literally, because I'd end up with one mile-long word like in your German 'joke'. I have to 'uncompress' them, but they are often very unclear, especially the way I usually get to see them, in a long list of strings without a lot of context. Please, PLEASE, try to avoid noun piles!

Licia   05 Aug 11 - 6:36 AM

Languages that have a different word order might experience an additional problem with number, which needs to be made explicit when untangling the noun stack, and it gets even more complicated when adjectives are also thrown into the mix.

I’ll take "default object validation task" as an example, which could be interpreted in three different ways (at least in theory):
[default object] [validation task],
[default [[object validation] task]] and
[default [object validation]] [task].

Non-native English speakers translating into Romance languages might have to deal with 12 possible translations describing the type of task:

– validation of the default object
– validations of the default object
– validation of the default objects
– validations of the default objects
– validation of the object, applied by default
– a validation of the objects, applied by default
– validations of the object, applied by default
– validations of the objects, applied by default
– a default validation of the object
– a default validation of the objects
– default validations of the object
– default validations of the objects

Needless to say, in most cases context and relevant knowledge will provide the necessary clues, but sometimes finding the right translation for a noun stack will require additional, time-consuming research.

Thomas   05 Aug 11 - 9:33 AM

A properly-trained technical writer wouldn't write like this.