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02 August 2011

Strung out

Do you know about noun strings? No, I didn’t either, until I joined Write.

Now I have a name for those occasionally bewildering successions of nouns that have me reading and re-reading, puzzling over what they mean.

Here’s a noun string: automatic frequency regulation services. Four nouns in a block. Concise? Or confusing?

Sometimes noun strings absolutely don’t mean what they say. Do ‘community-based family violence service providers’ bash you up if you ask? Of course not. They do important work reducing family violence and supporting its victims. But that’s not how it reads.

More often, noun strings do what they say. Working out what they say is the tricky part.

You can say ‘New Zealand electricity power system benefits’. Or ‘Human Resources Partnership Implementation Committee Partnering Dialogue’.

Or you can untangle the string to make it easier for your reader to string together your meaning. Write a phrase, not a series of nouns.

‘New Zealand electricity power system benefits’ are the benefits of New Zealand’s electric power system.

And then there’s the dialogue of the committee that’s implementing the human resources partnership. I’ll reluctantly pass the three nouns in a row (human resources partnership). But less is better.

When you’re busting noun strings, keep an eye out for nouns that could be verbs. The writer has turned a verb — implement — into a noun — implementation. Look out for ‘-tions’ and ‘-ments’ and turn them back into verbs.

Your sentences may get longer. But this isn’t about word count. It’s about clarity.

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