Noun stack order

Both languages do it: a sequence of nothing but nouns for the sake of brevity or to make a snappy title or newspaper headline. Like the one above. The order in English is generally not the same as the Dutch equivalent though.

A tricky one for non-natives to get the feel for, I suspect. And it’s one of the most widely-occurring and frequent mistakes in my entire list. A biggie. Tricky because you don’t create a noun stack by dropping all the small words from “the order of a stack of nouns”. So how do you get it right?

  • The main subject, the noun that hasn’t been made to serve as a sort of pseudo-possessive or pseudo-adjective, goes at the end. (Unlike the Dutch, where it tends to come first: Volgorde stapels naamwoorden.)
  • You can see that in the above example if we swap the possessives and adjectives in: nominal stacks’ order or nouns’ stacking order (both ugly and clunky, but you get the picture).
  • Plurals (other than the main subject) disappear. There are lots of nouns, but it’s not a nouns stack order.
  • the correct English order is often more like what you would get if you invented a single big compound word in Dutch, such as naamwoordstapelvolgorde
  • Some real-world examples:
    • advice caries prevention => caries prevention advice, or expand it to “advice about”
    • manager sales department => sales department manager
    • term pricing agreement => pricing agreement term, or expand it to “term of the pricing agreement”
    • Command Military Healthcare => Military Healthcare Command
    • Or, as a wonderful real-life example of how the order of a monstrous Dutch compound word is like an English noun stack, try gegevensbeschermingseffectbeoordeling

As a general style point, it’s worth saying that you probably should avoid noun stacks except where space is at a premium (titles, headers). An expanded version in running text will often be more understandable: the order of stacks of nouns.

Prevalence: endemic. And it stands out because you have to reread the sentence to work out what was meant.
Frequency: very high. Job titles are a particular favourite.
Native: no. And they are quite widely used in newspaper headlines, section headings and technical writing, despite being frowned on by some purists.

Published by Mike Wilkinson

Twenty years of translating and editing Dutch into English, as well as writing and publishing in English.

2 thoughts on “Noun stack order

  1. I note also that they are “nested” – you can choose how far to expand them, flipping the word order of each affected pair each time until it’s completely reversed:

    caries prevention advice => advice on caries prevention => advice on the prevention of caries
    pricing agreement term => term of the pricing agreement => term of the agreement on pricing
    noun stack order => order of noun stacks => order of the stacking of nouns

    and even

    assessment of the effects of protecting data


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: