Noun Strings, I Think I Love You. Not.

For some reason, some English writers love wordiness. Surprisingly, several newspaper journalists are notorious for this pesky practice.

I have been a Globe and Mail subscriber for the past two years. Generally speaking, journalists write well. Lately, however, I’ve noticed that writing has become somewhat stiff, somewhat wordy. It seems that in-house or freelance editors no longer edit texts. The result? Unpublished texts find their way into daily newspapers. What readers eventually see is a hodgepodge of concise text and gobbledygook.

Among the wordy offenders are noun strings. “What are noun strings?” you may ask. As its name suggests, these are strings containing several nouns in a single sentence. You’ll often see strings like this: noun + of + (the) + noun + of (the) + noun.

Although noun strings are acceptable in written English, erratic use makes texts hard to read and understand. I advise novice and seasoned copywriters to use noun strings sparingly; think outside the box and find other ways to make writing more concise. How can this be done? I will provide some suggestions further below. Before doing that, however, here are some noun strings I stumbled upon in one of The Globe and Mail articles today (bold prints are mine):

Construction of the Olympic Park in Barra da Tijuca includes venues for 16 Olympic sports, such as tennis, cycling and aquatics, as well as an athletes’ village, media centre, paralympic sites and village.”

“Renovations in the Sambadrome, where the legendary Carnaval parade happens every year, were being made to accommodate the start of the marathon and the archery competition.”

“The Maracana, Havelange and Maracanazinho stadiums are being renovated – opening and closing ceremonies will be held in Maracana, site of the final game of the 2014 World Cup.”

Rehabilitation of the port area will include housing and commercial developments, the building of museums, removal of a highway similar to Toronto’s elevated Gardiner Expressway, and creation of community gardens (…)”

“(…) The government’s original pledge was to reduce by 80 per cent the amount of waste that goes directly into the bay, but officials already concede this won’t be met, despite expenditure of $36-million.”

And to top it off, here are some text excerpts from the main text (bold prints are mine):

There is a year to go until the opening of the 2016 Summer Olympics, and it feels like every neighbourhood in host city Rio de Janeiro is under construction.

Some problems, however, can’t be hurried through: A recent Associated Press investigation of water quality at Olympic venues found that not one was safe enough for healthy human contact, with bacteria and viruses present at rates thousands, even millions, of times above the accepted limit.

As you have probably surmised, all text excerpts refer to next year’s Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

“The sentences look grammatically correct, so what’s the problem?” you may be saying. Here’s an experiment: Read one of the excerpts above. Do they sound choppy? long-winded? wordy?

Enter some solutions to avoid excessive noun strings.

  1. Behold the possessives. Yes, you read correctly. English uses possessive forms all the time. You’ve always said and wrote them. Consider this: “That is Jerry’s car.” “Steve and Randy’s restaurant is in the city’s west end.”
  2. Replace nouns with verbs. If you work with foreign languages, you’ve likely noticed that most of them emphasize nouns. English, however, emphasizes verbs. You see them everywhere: in slogans, in advertisements, in government documents, on websites—the list goes on. Remember, English is an action-oriented language!
  3. Use more idiomatic structures. Instead of writing, for instance, “the management of the company,” why not simply consider company management? Who said nobody liked concise writing?

I’ll end this post with possible solutions to the noun strings above (emphases are mine):

Olympic Park construction in Barra da Tijuca includes venues for 16 Olympic sports, such as tennis, cycling and aquatics…

Renovations in the Sambadrome, where the legendary Carnaval parade happens every year, were being made to accommodate the marathon and archery competition starts.

The Maracana, Havelange and Maracanazinho stadiums are being renovated – opening and closing ceremonies will be held in Maracana, the 2014 World Cup’s final game site. (Look ma, a possessive case!)

Rehabilitating the port area will include developing housing and commercial projects, building museums, removing a highway similar to Toronto’s elevated Gardiner Expressway, and creating community gardens. (Notice how initial nouns have turned into verbs. To achieve parallelism, the present progressive tense has been used throughout.)

The government’s original pledge was to reduce by 80 per cent the amount of waste that goes directly into the bay, but officials already concede this won’t be met, despite a $36-million expenditure.

Last, but not least, here are suggested edits for the excerpts found in the article’s main body (again, emphases are mine):

There is a year to go until the 2016 Summer Olympics open, and it feels like every neighbourhood in host city Rio de Janeiro is under construction.

Some problems, however, can’t be hurried through: Associated Press recently investigated water quality at Olympic venues. Not one site was safe enough for healthy human contact, with bacteria and viruses present at rates thousands, even millions, of times above the accepted limit. (Here, the subject is placed directly after the colon. Also note that the adjective recent has become an adverb, and the noun investigation is now a past-tense verb. To avoid an extremely long sentence, I started a new sentence after venues.)

If any of you have followed my “English Editing in Quebec” series on the Editors’ Weekly blog, you’ll know that my next text deals with noun strings from a French perspective. How should editors and translators deal with noun strings in English copy? Read to find out. My article should be published in early fall.

****

Personal note: Let me sincerely apologize for the delay in posting blog posts these past few months. I’ve had literally no time to post anything because of projects, vacations, last-minute emergencies, or professional conferences. From now on, I’ll endeavour to post articles once a week or every other week.

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2 comments

  1. Hmm. Not so sure I would have made those same edits. The sentences as originally written just seem journalistic in style to me.

    In “the marathon and archery competition starts,” it sounds like “starts” is a verb and the sentence isn’t finished. And in the “2014 World Cup’s final game site,” I feel a desire to edit out the possessive; it doesn’t feel natural to me in that context.

    But of course, these are all judgment calls!

    1. Thanks for your feedback! I’m not suggesting that these changes are perfect—they’re not, of course. I’m just saying that there are other ways to write instead of just using noun strings all the time.

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