Monday, January 23, 2012

The nouning of adjectives

The unfortunate adjective is having a tough time of it. Two unofficial rules covering the use of adjectives seem to have developed in recent years:
1) If an adjective is used, it will be unnecessary
2) If an adjective is necessary, the writer will use a noun instead
An example of the former is the pre-recorded announcement that gets played on British trains as they come into a station (or, as it is now mystifyingly called, "a station stop"): "On leaving the train, please ensure that you take all your personal belongings with you."

Why personal belongings? On one level, you could argue that "your belongings" are personal already, so the adjective is redundant. But what if I'm carrying presents for my daughter? They're my belongings because I bought them with my money, but they're not my personal belongings because they're not for me. The rail company is clearly requesting that I leave them on the train. And yesterday I was carrying a new laptop supplied by my company. That is personal, because it's been set up just for me, but it's not a personal belonging because it doesn't belong personally to me. Again, Southeastern Trains wants me to abandon it. Who do they think I am, a senior civil servant or police officer? 

By adding words, they turn a clear piece of advice into an ambiguous one. Their only excuse is that they don't expect you to take any notice, whatever they say.

Adjectives nowadays are usually unnecessary, as in "her photographer remains locked in ongoing litigation" (Guardian, although let's not forget that "ongoing" is almost always redundant anyway). But sometimes they are deliberately misleading, as in the common phrase "Important Information", which denotes a piece of paper or a web page that can safely be ignored. I'm not aware of any dictionary that has included this new definition of the word "important", meaning "unintelligible and included purely to cover our backside in the event of you doing something stupid". But the day can't be far off.

You'd think that this irrational need to qualify everything would lead to a surge in the use of adjectives, but that's where Point 2 comes into play. When the qualification is truly needed, somehow an adjective isn't enough. In the same way you set a thief to catch a thief, it seems that an unruly noun can only be brought into line by another noun.

This probably started with newspaper headline writers, who would write things like "Noun joy after adjective purge" (the verbs had been exiled years before). Since white space is verboten on newspaper front pages, we can perhaps forgive them for using whatever words fit. That might also explain why headlines are a bit freer on the internet, where space is more malleable and SEO is also a concern. (It doesn't explain why a headline on the BBC front page earlier this month – which, criminally, I failed to save – consisted entirely of six nouns.)

But the habit seems to have spread to places it should never reach. Take this example:
"Per Mertesacker of Werder Bremen is a seasoned Germany international" Guardian, 31 August 2011
Now, there are sometimes excuses for this, such as in this BBC announcement, also on 31 August, of Sanjeev Srivastava as its new "India Editor". One could describe him as "Indian Editor", since he is Indian, but that's not what the BBC meant to say. It would have been odd to describe Mark Tully, who was "India Correspondent" for three decades, as the "Indian Correspondent" since he is English (albeit born in Calcutta). But why not describe Mertesacker as a "German international"? After all, only Germans can play for the the German team, so no ambiguity is possible.*

One objection to using nouns as adjectives is that it creates ambiguity – which of the nouns is the real noun and which are moonlighting as adjectives? – but sometimes that ambiguity has its uses. When Paul Chambers was convicted on terrorism charges for tweeting his desire to blow up an airport, the Twitter hashtag #TwitterJokeTrial implied that it was a trial about a Twitter joke. But it could just as easily read as a joke trial about Twitter, which is how people who oppose security paranoia prefer to read it. Sometimes, a bit of ambiguity is all that's needed to make a joke. Does anyone remember MontyPythonscrapbook?

This is symptomatic of a trend in English of blurring the distinction between word types, summed up by the maxim "There is no noun that cannot be verbed", but we are also seeing verbs being nouned. Most notably, the past couple of years have seen the word "failure" almost entirely replaced by "fail". 

We love the almost unique flexibility of English, but a bit of structure is needed or else the strong meat of language will turn into verbal soup.

*A better example of this has since come to light. When the Guardian reported the death of the legendary Bert Trautmann, he was described as "The former West Germany and Manchester City goalkeeper". Trautmann never played for West Germany.   

Moral: Don't un-noun nouns by adjectiving. 


  1. "Since white space is verboten on newspaper front pages, we can perhaps forgive them for using whatever words fit. "

    No, we can't. Meaning should never be substituted for word length, especially in a headline.

    1. True, but that's why headlines are such an art. Even a poet can pop in an extra stanza.

  2. Moral: Don't un-noun nouns by adjectiving.

    And while you're at it, don't turn adjectives into verbs. 'Adjectiving' Really! Why not: Don't turn nouns into adjectives.

    Nick Wright
    Editor Software

  3. How can I put this, Nick? It's a sort of satirical joke: you know, where you criticise something not directly but by mimicking it to make it look ridiculous? Obviously not very successfully…

  4. Adjectivising ... adjectiverising ... making them adjectivous ... using them adjectiverously ... STOP ME!

    I saw (and pulverised) 'operationalisation' the other day. The most perplexing thing is that it's not even a verb or an adjective being made into a noun; it's a perfectly good noun ('use') being eschewed for a horrendous invention six times as long.

    1. Ye Gods, I hope that wasn't on a Guardian shift.

    2. It was in the building, I'm afraid. But not written by a member of staff.

  5. Verbing weirds language.
    --Bill Watterson

  6. "Personal belongings" is redundant, but no one in their right mind would abandon family gifts or a company laptop because they interpreted the message literally. These hypothetical scenarios may have been satirical, but you still conclude that the wording is ambiguous. In the context, it hardly is.

    "[A] seasoned Germany international" is sloppy, but is its blurring of the distinction between word types "a trend" when it has been going on throughout the lifetime of the language? Sometimes the phenomenon opens a useful (or harmless) niche in expression; sometimes it doesn't. I'll need an awful lot more evidence that it's detrimental before I worry about the language turning into "verbal soup".

  7. It's a "Germany International," as it is also an "England International," because he plays for a national team called "Germany." His nationality is not the point; what is being referred to is the team, Germany, for which he plays.

    Just as a seasoned "New York Yankees player" is clearer than a "seasoned Yankee," which probably refers to a lobsterman.

  8. I had a think about this and decided I don't object to "Germany international" after all; it was rash of me to call it sloppy. The Irish soccer* team has long had players from other countries, via the so-called Granny Rule, so it makes just as much sense to call them Ireland internationals as Irish internationals. I don't follow sport closely, but based on a cursory look the use of country names this way seems to have been in regular use for decades.

    * Football, if you prefer, though that means something different in this country.

  9. Do you normally serve as an author exclusively for this domain or you do this for any other online or offline portals?

    1. Hi Egoist,
      I've occasionally written for other blogs (and I have my real editing work for which I [mystifyingly] get paid) but this is my main online playground.

  10. I really still don't understand the adjectives. It always make me difficult to understand it's logic. This blog explain quite briefly about it and oping to get this time. online comma checker