How to Flatten Adjective Stacks

By Mark Nichol

Words are highly adaptable in terms of which part of speech they represent, but careful writers should be alert in order to minimize or prevent a linguistic affliction called adjective stacking, which is discussed in this post.

Nouns are easily converted to adjectives, as when using the phrase “dinner table.” Dinner and table are both nouns, but when dinner immediately precedes table, it ceases to mean “evening meal” and represents an adjective describing a type of table: one used for evening meals. Similarly, “sport utility vehicle” consists of three words that serve as nouns, but when positioned in sequence, the first two words no longer stand on their own to represent concepts, but rather describe the third noun.

Such sequences can extend indefinitely, but the longer the string of adjectives—or the higher the stack—the more difficult it is for readers to parse the components and their interrelationships. Reading from left to right, we recognize the first word as a noun but then correct ourselves when a noun follows it, reclassifying the first word as an adjective. Then we have to conduct the same mental process repeatedly, and when word relationships are not clarified by use of hyphens, the quest for comprehension is complicated.

The following list from an actual document represents the problems with adjective stacking; it can be confusing and fatiguing:

  • Penetration testing for key medical devices
  • Biomedical security vulnerability assessments
  • Medical device procurement process consulting
  • Biomedical incident response readiness assessments
  • Medical device security program remediation support
  • Manufacturer vulnerability remediation liaison assistance

Oddly, the syntax of the first item enables a quick, clear reading, while the others fail to follow suit. Using the first item as a model, however, one can easily revise the list to improve readability by reordering words and phrases and introducing prepositions (and, sometimes, words representing other functions):

  • Penetration testing for key medical devices
  • Assessments of vulnerability of biomedical security
  • Consulting about the procurement process for medical devices
  • Assessments of readiness regarding response to biomedical incidents
  • Remediation support for medical-device security programs
  • Liaison assistance for remediation of manufacturer vulnerability

These revised phrases are less concise but easier to read. Note, too, that one can reorganize the word sequences to various extents; each of these phrases can be revised in more than one way.

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