4: An Inquiry Into Modifier Noun Proliferation
Frankly, I’m worried. Of course, phrases
like “deer crossing” and “state university” have always been around where the first noun helps pin
down what particular sort of thing that second noun might be. And very helpful and necessary those concrete phrases are. But
I think we’re on to something new and not too desirable when “students” become, for no good reason I can
see, “student population” and “training” degenerates into “training program,” and “investment”
is “investment spending,” and everything from highways to computers is being labeled “highway systems”
and “computer systems” (which naturally means “computer systems analysts” and “highways systems
engineers” and so on). What’s happening is that nouns are being strung end to end in mindless litanies and the
beauty that was Samuel Johnson and the brevity that was Oscar Wilde have gone down the drain. My theory is that sweet simplicity
is what good prose is all about. I guess by now you know this is modifier noun proliferation increase phenomenon article protest.
Abstraction is the enemy both of clear expression and easy understanding. And abstract is what these strings of nouns become.
Very quickly the reader or listener doesn’t know what the actual relationship is. Take “Reality Therapy,”
the name of a new book. Do you gather that the author uses reality as a means of therapy or that the goal of his treatment
is facing reality or that he has worked out some sort of therapy which he applies to reality? Take a phrase puzzled over in
Newsweek: “antenna television systems operation.” Manufacture? broadcasting? consulting? The article said that
somebody was going into that field and I still don’t know where he’s going. I suspect that the people who turn
out these phrases might insist that they are seeking greater precision, as though each new noun pinned down the matter a bit
more. Wrong. Another article like this one and we’ll have a modifier noun proliferation increase phenomenon article
protest campaign, but will you know what you’ve got?
The real reason for the modifier noun explosion
(did you notice how that anti-prose reads sort of like de-dum-de-dum clunk-clunk-clunk) is that a lot of people are just not
comfortable with whatever it is they are saying. So they look around for ways to dress up trivia and to jazz up inanities
and to make all the foolishness spoken and written daily seem to possess some dignity. For example, a few years back any company
would have unhesitatingly released these remarks: “Gross is up 15% and the company will next year begin production of
a highly advanced grombit.” But no more: “Company business sales have registered a 15% gross increase rate. Your
corporation is planning production procedures for the next business year to speed the assembly manufacture of a perfected
grombit mechanism unit.” Like germs, you see, each noun splits into two and one of them again becomes two and so on.
Who are they trying to impress? Let’s have a return to the good old ways. Then the media can write about the modifier
noun proliferation increase phenomenon article protest campaign success story, but not in those words.
The odds, however, look bad. I hate to be cynical.
But here’s a theory about the whole mess. In this age of universal education, everybody ends up half-educated. People
can understand most of the words in the language but they don’t have much feeling for how they should be put together.
In a phrase, the masses are ripe for mumbo-jumbo. Call a “course” a “curriculum unit” and the crowds
swoon; call a “parachute” an “aerodynamic personnel decelerator” and strong men become glassy-eyed;
call a “restaurant” a “food service operation” and people become reverential; call a “tin can”
a “metal cylinder food preservation storage transport container” and nobody knows what the hell is going on, but
they sure are impressed.
I have this dark feeling that were we to call
in a thoroughly modern publicist and instruct him to write up this campaign against mumbo-jumbo, he’d come back with
a Modifier Noun Proliferation Increase Phenomenon Article Protest Campaign Success Story Report. And he’d be very proud
of the title.
And pretty soon businessmen, eager to find if there was any money in hopping on the bandwagon, would call for modifier noun
proliferation increase phenomenon article protest campaign success story report information. And the secretary, absolutely
incorrigible, would answer that he must call another number to reach the Modifier Noun Proliferation Increase Phenomenon Article
Protest Campaign Success Story Report Information Center. And he would and pretty soon he’d be telling his friends about
the modifier noun proliferation increase article protest campaign success story report information center development and
they’d say let’s start a modifier noun proliferation increase phenomenon article protest campaign success story
report information center development program. And pretty soon there’d be a modifier noun proliferation increase phenomenon
article protest campaign success story report information center development program movement.
Word of all this would cause infected scholars to mutter, Oh, the modifier noun proliferation increase protest article campaign
success story report information center development program movement tragedy of it all! We had this excellent language a
while back. But it’s dying of modifier noun proliferation increase phenomenon article protest campaign success story
report information center development program movement tragedy sickness. And that ain’t no modifier noun proliferation
increase phenomenon article protest campaign success story report information center development program movement tragedy
"4: An Inquiry Into Modifier Noun
Proliferation" first appeared in Book World/Washington Post, 1970. Also see #5, a somewhat more routine version of same
Many other articles
on this site deal with the general neglect of literacy; see "42: Reading Resources."