Noun Adjectives

The English language has been greatly enriched by its readiness to treat nouns as adjectives. We are surrounded by innumerable examples—War Department, Highway Code, Nursery School, Weather Forecast, Trades Union Congress, and so on. But something has gone wrong recently with this useful practice. It is shockingly abused in newspaper headlines, and this has set up a corruption that is poisoning English prose. It seems to be natural today to write clodhopping stuff like "World population is increasing faster than world food production" instead of "The population of the world is increasing faster than the food it produces". Lord Dunsany has described this process:

Too many ofs have dropped out of the language, and the dark of the floor is littered with this useful word. Only the other day I was puzzled by a reference in The Times to "valuable type specimens". What, I wondered, are type specimens. But I worked out that it meant specimens of valuable types. . . . My friend, the late Mr. Anthony Crossley, once told me, when I was talking on this subject, of a heading he had found in a paper which went:

Sir John Simon and Car Chase Widow.

I remember most clearly that it was no reflection whatever upon Sir John Simon, as he was then, or even upon his car, or his chauffeur; but what it did mean, though Mr. Crossley told me at the time, I cannot remember, and I shall never know now, for there is no making head or tail of the words themselves. Far worse than the examples I have quoted are to be met with daily, things like "England side captain selection" instead of "Selection of captain of English eleven" ; or even "England side captain selection difficulty". Nor would they stop nowadays at "England side captain selection difficulty rumour".

This sort of language is no doubt pardonable in headlines, where as many stimulating words as possible must be crowded into spaces so small that treaties have had to become pacts, ambassadors envoys, and investigations probes. Headlines have become a language of their own, knowing no law and often quite incomprehensible until one has read the article that they profess to summarise. "INSANITY RULES CRITIC" and "W. H. SMITH OFFER SUCCESS" have quite different meanings from their apparent ones. Who could know what is meant by "HANGING PROBE NAMES SOON" until he has read on and discovered that what it means is "The names of the members of the Royal Commission on Capital Punishment will shortly be announced"?

But what may be pardonable in headlines will not do in the text. For instance:

Rationing of meat must continue because of the world supply situation (because there is not enough meat in the world).

An exceptionally choice example is:

On the basis of the present head of labour ceiling allocation overall.

Here Head of labour means number of building operatives. Ceiling means maximum. Overall, as usual, means nothing. The whole sentence means "If we get the maximum number of building operatives at present allotted to us".

Everything is being done to expedite plant installation within the limiting factors of steel availability and the preparation of sites.

The only thing that can be said for the writer of this is that his conscience pulled him up before the end, and he did not write "sites preparation". The sentence should have run "So far as steel is available and sites can be prepared, everything is being done to expedite the installation of plant".

The use of a noun as an adjective should be avoided where the same word is already an adjective with a different meaning. Do not, for instance, say "material allocation" when you mean "allocation of material", but reserve that expression against the time when you may want to make clear that the allocation you are considering is not a spiritual one.

For the same reason this phrase is not felicitous:

In view of the restrictions recently imposed on our capital economic situation . . .

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