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homeAbout / News / Contact1: English and Education2: In Praise Of Stark Lucidity3: Latin Lives On + Greek Lives On4: An Inquiry Into Modifier Noun Proliferation5: Noun Overuse Phenomenon Article6: Let's Get Serious About Education7: A Smashing Victory8: A Metalinguistic Inquiry Into F9: Philosophy Weeps10: MAX Your Creativity11: What's All This Talk About Digital?12: "MAP" ALERT13: Precision Worth Preserving14: THEORYLAND15: "1984"--The Cover Up16: The Plight of Poetry17: Understanding Robots18: Tao Te Ching (followed by "Notes on the Spiritual Life")19: Form, Function, Foolishness20: The Quizz (or: Facts Are Fun!)21: A Tribute to Rudolf Flesch22: On Bullsh*t & Sophistry23: The Creativity Question24: Birds Like Us25: Phooey on John Dewey26: How To Teach History, Etc.27: Ivan Pavlov-- Education Goes To the Dogs28: Tips for Helping Your Child Do Better in School29: The Rules Of Poetry30: The War Against Reading31: Teacher Liberation Front32: Teaching Science--Science Is Fun33: How To Help A Non-Reader To Read34: The Con in Constructivism35: Most Eminent Authority In Reading-- Dr. Samuel Blumenfeld36: The Assault on Math37: Whole Word versus Phonics38: Saving Public Schools39: How To Teach Physics, Etc.40: Sight Words -- Dolch Words -- The Big Stupid41: Educators, O. J. Simpson, and Guilt42: Reading Resources43: American Basic Curriculum44: The Myth of Automaticity45: The Crusade Against Knowledge & Memory46: American Public Schools Designed To Fail47: Teach One Fact Each Day48: You Still Teach Sight Words??!!49: How Do We Learn & Teach50: Leading Boys to Reading51: Learning Styles: How Educators Divide Kids52: The Conspiracy Chronicles53: Education Establishment Hates Math54: Preemptive Reading55: Letters From Teachers / oldest first56: Top 10 Worst Ideas In Education57: Cooperative Learning58: How To Teach A Poem59: Critical Thinking--If Only60: Smart Content Makes Kids Smarter61: Early Literacy Pack--ELP62: Prior Knowledge--Strange New Religion63: PROJECT-BASED LEARNING64: Head Start -- how would it be done right??65: How They Wrecked The Schools,COMMENTS / newest firstNew American Curriculum--Five Point Reform PlanA Bill of Rights for Students 2017The Education EnigmaREADING THEORYINDEX/ SITE SEARCH /GOODIESEducator of the YearImprove Education BLOG
4: An Inquiry Into Modifier Noun Proliferation

inquiry into modifier noun proliferation - nounspeak

Have you noticed the new look in the English language: Everybody’s using nouns as adjectives. Or to put that in the current argot, there’s a modifier noun proliferation. More exactly, since the matter is getting out of hand, a modifier noun proliferation increase. In fact, every time I open a magazine these days or listen to the radio, I am struck by the modifier noun proliferation increase phenomenon. So, I decided to write—you guessed it—a modifier noun proliferation increase phenomenon article.

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 sickness joke.

 
"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 ideas.
 
Many other articles on this site deal with the general neglect of literacy; see "42:  Reading Resources." 

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© Bruce Deitrick Price 2011