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English is becoming so indifferent to the proper roles of parts of speech that I have been finding longer and longer chains of nouns in written materials. I am under the impression that chaining nouns was avoided in the 19th century, but that the practice exploded in the 20th under the influence of journalistic and bureaucratic writing. (A recent headline read “Trump waits on oil attack response,” and MILSPEAK has “radar system design expert”.) The practice also has historical precedent. Two-part compounds (e.g., manslaughter) were abundant in Old English, and German generates the likes of Speicherbranduntersuchingsrichter.

Chaining nouns is forbidden in French and Spanish, which instead chain prepositional phrases in the reverse order. The preposition is usually de, which adds nothing by way of semantic value (whereas “Trump awaits response to attack on oil fields” would have added a little.)

Is there an accepted typology of such chains or compounds? (Some types might be considered more acceptable than others.) Sanskrit grammarians wrote of bahuvrihis and tatpurušas, but these terms don’t seem adequate. I see significant differences among …

  • Metaphoric bahuvrihi: low-life, bottom-feeder
  • Simple specifier: sales tactic, radar system, foot fetish, balancing act, tax law
  • Time and place: winter nights, kitchen table, home-made
  • Object relationship with verbal noun: budget balancing, drug maker, land grab
  • Subject or instrumental relationship: flea-bite, moth-eaten, hag-ridden, god-forsaken. (The participles are technically adjectives, but these compounds break the same traditional rule.)
  • Possessive relationship: finger length, government secret
  • Miscellaneous: sex-positive, rust-red, worm hole

Is the baleful trend to chaining nouns likely to be self-limiting? (For example, is it encountering any resistance from editors or educators?) Has it begun to infect French and Spanish? (What would l’Académie think of système radar?) I would be interested to know how far the trend has gone in Chinese, which has been generating compounds for ages.

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    You seem to have an unexplainable aversion against multi-noun phrases. Sure we can say "expert who designs systems of radars" instead of "radar system design expert", but what do we gain by that? – jick Oct 13 '19 at 17:51
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    Moth-eaten, sex-positive, rust-red, god-forsaken, etc are a noun plus an adjective, not a noun plus a noun. – Draconis Oct 13 '19 at 17:52
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    This question seems to have some very strange moral judgements in it. It would probably be better-received if it were asked more neutrally. Why should there be anything wrong with noun+noun compounds? – Draconis Oct 13 '19 at 18:11
  • Your "German" example isn't a real one, it is a complete nonsense word completed by soemone not speaking German well (or not at all) – jk - Reinstate Monica Oct 13 '19 at 21:29
  • I am a Chewing-gum Wrapper Collectors Association member assassinator – Araucaria - Not here any more. Oct 15 '19 at 15:12
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"Chaining" is an inappropriate term for the noun compounds of English. Actually, they are binary. But since the compounds are words, they may be used to build up other compounds. That is, compounding is recursive.

For instance, your example "radar system design expert” is a two element compound from the noun "radar system design" and the noun "expert". And "radar system design" is a two element compound from the nouns "radar system" and "design". And "radar system" is from the two nouns "radar" and "system".

Parenthetically, I'm not sure about the exact structure of that example compound above. Maybe it's radar-system design-expert -- a expert in design as applied to radar systems. This still has a binary structure, so it doesn't affect the general issue. This latter structure should have an intonation with the most prominent stress on the second syllable of "design".

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  • Your comment in the last paragraph shows how recursive application of a binary rule can cause ambiguities of association that must bedevil algorithms that parse noun phrases without reference to meaning. When the ambiguities confuse human readers, as often happens with bureaucratic writing, the practice becomes a problem. – Bert Barrois Oct 14 '19 at 19:07
  • @BertBarrois, Yes, the syntax of natural language allows complex structures that cannot be captured in word formation, so it has to be simplified. That leads to additional ambiguities. So it's a good thing speakers have syntax in addition to morphology. – Greg Lee Oct 15 '19 at 19:06
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There's a tendency in present-day French to dispense with connectors like de. I'm not sure this tendency has anything to do with the influence of English. I don't think this phenomenon has been seriously studied on the long run. It may not even be described in official grammar books.

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