Editing Tip: Attributive Nouns (Or, Adjective Nouns)

Attributive nouns are nouns serving as an adjective to describe another noun. They create flexibility with writing in English, but they can cause confusion and should be used purposefully.

The English language affords considerable flexibility for its users. In addition to the well-chronicled history of making up new words when old ones simply won’t suffice, English speakers can sometimes shift the part of speech of a word to create new usages. Today, we discuss the use of nouns as adjectives.

In English, one noun can be placed in front of another to modify the second noun, much as a standard adjective would do. In such cases, the noun is said to become an attributive noun (or noun adjunct). One very common example is the phrase airplane tickets. Here, the noun airplane is being used to describe the nature of the tickets being discussed. One could say tickets for an airplane instead, but the ability to use airplane as an attributive noun saves a lot of space. Similar usage is common in academic writing, as in phrases like PCR assay and case reports. Remember that attributive nouns almost always appear in their singular form, aside from some longstanding conventions like the ladies room (a restroom for women) and an arms race (where ‘arm race’ would likely conjure a different image!).

If attributive nouns save space, is there a downside? Brevity is often paired with ambiguity, and attributive nouns are no exception. When mentioning voter awareness, does the writer mean awareness that voters are present or awareness of a particular topic among voters? Adding an additional adjective to the mix can create additional problems, as in the phrase small truck driver (a driver of small trucks or a diminutive driver of normal trucks?). In practice, such ambiguity is rare, but always consider any possible misinterpretations that your readers could make.

We hope that you can make full use of the flexibility of the English language, including the use of nouns as adjectives! If you have questions about a specific attributive noun usage, write us any time at [email protected].

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