Editing Tip: Avoiding Noun String Overuse

  • Using nouns as adjectives can help save space in your writing
  • However, stacking nouns in a long string can create confusion for the reader

As mentioned in another article on AJE Scholar, attributive nouns, also known as nouns serving as adjectives, are frequently used to reduce a manuscript’s word count. For example, the phrase “caspase expression,” in which 'caspase' is an attributive noun, is 50% shorter than “the expression of caspase.” However, this strategy of restructuring a sentence to make your writing more concise, including reordering nouns and removing articles and prepositions, may sacrifice clarity, as in the following example:

  • Original: The release of the drug from the PLGA nanoparticle was examined. (11 words)
  • Concise but unclear: PLGA nanoparticle drug release was examined. (6 words)

The first sentence’s meaning is clear, whereas the second sentence, which is five words shorter, is ambiguous as well as awkward. Is the released substance a “PLGA nanoparticle drug,” or just a “drug”? If you are familiar with nanoscience, you may be able to deduce the intended meaning; otherwise, this phrasing could be confusing. The following two options are clearer:

  • Concise and clear: The drug release from the PLGA nanoparticle was examined. (9 words)
  • Concise and clear: The PLGA nanoparticle’s drug release was examined. (7 words)

The first option condenses only the earlier part of the sentence to balance conciseness with clarity. Meanwhile, the second sentence is based on a different approach: apostrophe use to clarify what is being released (the drug) and what is in possession of the drug-releasing property (the PLGA nanoparticle).

This type of phrasing, involving a series of consecutive nouns, as in “PLGA nanoparticle drug release,” is also known as a noun string. Limiting strings to 3 or 4 nouns is typically recommended, although the appropriate number ultimately depends on how intelligible and how commonly used a particular phrase is.

The ambiguity of noun strings may further increase when adjectives are also present:

  • Original: The controlled release of the drug from the surface-modified PLGA nanoparticle was examined. (13 words)
  • Concise but unclear: Surface-modified PLGA nanoparticle controlled drug release was examined. (8 words)

As before, attributive noun use should be decreased in this case, or a possessive form may be used:

  • Concise and clear: The controlled drug release from the surface-modified PLGA nanoparticle was examined. (11 words)
  • Concise and clear: The surface-modified PLGA nanoparticle’s controlled drug release was examined. (9 words)

We hope that today’s editing tip has demonstrated what a noun string is and why and how overuse should be avoided. Please contact us with any questions or comments about this tip. We wish you the best in your writing and editing efforts!

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