5 Adjective Stacks, and How to Level Them

By Mark Nichol

When a noun stack — a precarious pileup of nouns — is itself used to modify yet another noun, it is transformed into an adjective stack, which is just as hostile to clarity. The keyword in this case is relax: Shift the anchoring noun to precede the stack, and introduce prepositions as needed. (And insert hyphens to link words in phrasal adjectives).

1. “The lack of a secure transfer may hamper computer security incident response efforts.”

The phrase “computer security incident response efforts” is just too complex: The formula for a solution is “The lack of a secure transfer may hamper efforts to respond to computer-security incidents, but “efforts to respond” is a case of a smothered verb; responses will do: “The lack of a secure transfer may hamper responses to computer-security incidents.”

2. “The company has vast experience providing information-systems security-program management support.”

This sentence, with a five-word modifying phrase, is a formidable challenge, but just break it down: The noun is support, so relocate that immediately after the verb and follow it with the appropriate preposition. But “information-systems security-program management” is still unwieldy, so rinse and repeat: After the preposition, insert “program management” and another preposition, followed by the remaining phrasal adjective “security program” and the new anchoring noun, security: “The company has vast experience providing support for program management in information-systems security.”

3. “The Hong Kong artist revolutionized the Asian toy collectors’ market.”

It’s unclear whether the market in question is for collectors of Asian toys or toy collectors who are Asian. Assuming that the former option is correct, when you relocate market to follow the verb, move collectors’ with it, then retain the adjective-noun pairing “Asian toys”: “The Hong Kong artist revolutionized the collectors’ market for Asian toys.”

4. “They met on behalf of the proposed redwood national park idea.”

A revision of this sentence involves transforming the adjective proposed to the noun proposal and jettisoning the noun idea in favor of the verb create. However, while the new version — “They met on behalf of the proposal to create a national park in the redwoods” — is clearer than the original, it’s too wordy: Try simplifying it to “They met to discuss creating a national park in the redwoods.”

5. “Seventy-five-year-old US Supreme Court chief justice William Rehnquist was appointed by Ronald Reagan.”

This style of adjective stacking, in which readers wade through a phalanx of descriptive terms to get to a person’s name, is more common in journalism than in other forms of writing, but no matter where it appears, it’s ripe for relaxation. Sometimes it’s appropriate to split the stack: “Seventy-five-year-old William Rehnquist, chief justice of the Supreme Court, was appointed by Ronald Reagan.”

Often, however, it’s best to place the name — the anchoring noun — first, and let all the other information fall where it may: “William Rehnquist, 75, chief justice of the Supreme Court, was appointed by Ronald Reagan.” (This treatment of age is according to The Associated Press Stylebook, the guideline of record for American journalism, which generally spells out only numbers below ten. In another context, the subject’s age, spelled out unless it’s 101 or more, might be mentioned in a subsequent sentence or even omitted.)

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3 Responses to “5 Adjective Stacks, and How to Level Them”

  • MadhusudanR

    1. “The lack of a secure transfer may hamper computer security incident response efforts.”

    What if “incident response” is a term for some regular procedure in the computer security world? It that is the case, and if the text given here is meant to be read by those in computer security, then this sentence sounds okay. Please correct me if I am wrong.

    2. “The company has vast experience providing information-systems security-program management support.”

    Same as above. What if “information-systems” and “security program” are jargon for something?

  • Sally

    As Mark has pointed out several times, it is unfortunate that English speakers have come to rely so much on nouns rather than verbs.

    Ordinary people have been taught to associate this with government ‘bureaucracy,’ but it is equally common among those schooled in Economics / Business Administration / Capitalism 101.

    “You will recive an employment-termination package” assuages the conscience of the nonentity in “Human Resources” more than “you will be laid off / fired / retrenched / sacked /given the boot, with two weeks pay” (although a certain right-wing über-capitalist with bad hair named Donald Trump managed to turn the latter into ‘entertainment’ for the ‘aspirationals’).

    Two wonderful books on this topic are “Weasel Words” and “Death Sentence,” both by Australian author Don Watson.

  • Mark Nichol

    MadhusudanR:

    Even if the terms you mention are established jargon, the sentences remain dense, and they can be revised to read more smoothly while maintaining the integrity of the vocabulary.

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