Have You Had the “Noun-String Talk” with Your Students?

“Personality Testing Services Inquiry”

“Plemco Public Relations Internship Proposal”

“Computer Training Dates Announcement”

“Social Media Group Project Progress Report”

Do your students write subject lines like these? Mine do—as I was reminded when I graded a set of memos recently. For this reason, the “noun-string talk” is becoming a staple of my bcomm classes.

Most of my students have never heard the term noun string. The first time I encountered it was in the early 1980s when I read Guidelines for Document Designers (1981), a booklet by a team of researchers who’d been hired to help the U.S. government make its public documents more readable. “Unstring noun strings” was one of their 25 evidence-based guidelines for making documents easy to comprehend. (Sadly, this  wonderful booklet is now out of print.)

A noun string (also called a compound noun phrase) is just what it sounds like: a string of several nouns in a row. Readability experts advise against using such constructions because they make the reader work too hard to figure out what they mean.

To understand “Personality Testing Services Inquiry,” for example, the reader must ponder which nouns are adjectives, which are real nouns, and which go with which. Much clearer is the unstrung version, “Inquiry about Your Personality Testing Services.” (As this example shows, often the best way to unstring the string is to move the last noun to the front and attach the rest in a prepositional phrase.)

But isn’t the revised version longer? Yes, a little—and I think that’s one reason our students use noun strings rather than clear, conversational English. They’re trying to be efficient. I also think they believe that they sound more “businesslike” and “official” when they use noun strings. They do—but in a bad way. The noun string is a form of “bureaucratese,” a style of writing that is too impersonal, jargon ridden, and/or abstract to be easily understood.

If you haven’t had the “noun-string talk” with your students, maybe it’s time. Have them unstring some noun strings. Better yet, have a contest to see who can come up with the best bad example! If you get some good (bad?) ones to share, please post them.

One thought on “Have You Had the “Noun-String Talk” with Your Students?

  1. In my inbox today is an email with the subject line “Faculty Institute Impact Study Recruitment”! Guess our students aren’t the only ones who have trouble with noun strings. :>)


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