Adjectives, nouns and adjectival nouns (part 1): beware of freight trains

Adjectives and nouns: a close relationship

In my first blog on the parts of speech, I wrote that the same word can often be used as different parts of speech, and we have already looked at how some words can be both nouns and verbs. But it is probably adjectives that are the part of speech where we will most often use words that we usually think of as belonging to one of the other parts of speech: nouns, verbs and even pronouns. Let’s start by looking at nouns used as adjectives, or, as they are often called, adjectival nouns. When we use nouns as adjectives, the difference between the two parts of speech can be very difficult to work out. For example, mother hen:  is ‘mother’ a noun used as an adjective, or is the entire phrase a compound noun? You can waste a lot of time thinking about examples like this but most of the time it really doesn’t matter.

Mother hen: an adjectival noun and noun, or a compound noun?

Sometimes when we use a noun as an adjective, we use it for emphasis or to give more weight to the noun it describes. We need to be careful when doing this to make sure that the noun acting as the adjective is needed, as often these combinations are an unnecessary repetition. Readers generally don’t want what they are reading to be longer than it has to be. End goal, emergency situation and game plan are examples that could easily just simply be goal, emergency and plan in most contexts.

A bushfire in Tasmania: an emergency situation or just an emergency?

As well as being careful not to create unnecessary repetition when using nouns as adjectives, we need to take care not to create a long string of nouns, or a ‘freight train’. In most instances, it is rare to use more than two or perhaps three adjectives before a noun. Occasionally, more adjectives can be effective: an itsty-bitsy, teeny-weeny, yellow polka-dot bikini is more memorable than just a yellow polka-dot bikini. But notice how we use hyphens and commas with the adjectives to create signals to the reader that they have seen another adjective rather than the final word in the string.

An itsty-bitsy, teeny-weeny, yellow polka-dot bikini is a successful use of a long string of adjectives

When we use adjectival nouns, it is much harder to use punctuation to signal meaning in the string of words to the reader. When we use adjectival nouns, we don’t generally use commas between them, so a signal that the string of adjectives is going to continue is missing. The effect can be like watching an endless freight train pass: you have no idea where it is going or where it will end.

A long string of adjectival nouns is like a freight train: it is hard for readers to know where it will end

When you start reading about a customer success specialist performance feedback survey, you will probably start thinking about a rewarding shopping trip before you find out you are actually reading about an annoying online survey. Similarly, environment protection legislation activity analysis summary report will likely have you initially thinking about the natural world rather than a study of laws. The long string management superannuation payout budget strategy review meeting first suggests pensions being paid to managers, rather than a group of people talking in a room.

Freight trains of adjectival nouns – like customer success specialist performance feedback survey – can make readers initially think of something completely different from what is actually being described

Freight trains of adjectival nouns are easy to compose. They frequently occur when we are trying to cut down the numbers of words we are using, because we know readers like things to be as brief as possible. But readers also don’t like to be confused: if you need to take some extra words for clarity, your readers will read more quickly, because they aren’t spending any time heading off down the wrong track.

  • survey for feedback on the performance of the customer success specialist (who seems to be the person you talk to when you call a business)
  • the summary report of the analysis of legislation activity on environment protection
  • meeting to review the budget strategy for superannuation payouts for management

And once you’ve done that, you may find that you don’t need all the adjectival nouns after all . . .

In summary: when using nouns as adjectives, try to keep the number of adjectival nouns to one or two.

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All images except the last are from Unsplash: the mother hen is by K Kannan, the bushfire is by Matt Palmer, the woman in the bikini is by Les Anderson, the freight train is by Robert Linder and the happy shopper is by freestocks. The online survey is an Image by


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