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Nouns in a Stream–What Do They Mean?

Last week while driving on the Palisades Parkway in Bergen County, New Jersey, I spotted a perplexing road sign. It said:

End Construction

There are several ways to interpret the sign.

Does it say that we should end construction? But why should we do so?

Does it mean that we are constructing ends? How? What kind of ends?

Or does it mean that construction has ended? If so, why doesn’t it say “End of Construction”?

Of course, we drivers and passengers realized the sign meant that construction was behind us. Yet the two nouns run together (end and construction) had us guessing momentarily. The insertion of the little preposition of would have made the message instantly clear.

Imagine how readers struggle with five nouns in a row:

Software Package License Application Process

Work Schedule Policy Review Statement

Attendance Incentives Policy Survey Report

Business Writing Program Registration Information

When signs and headings omit little words such as articles and prepositions, readers have to work to insert them in the correct place. They may guess “A Survey Report on the Attendance Incentives Policy” or “A Report on the Attendance Incentives Policy Survey” or something else. They may assume “A Policy Review Statement on the Work Schedule,” when the writer intended “A Work Schedule for the Policy Review Statement.”

When your Microsoft Office grammar and spelling checker comments “Too Many Nouns (consider revising),” pay attention. Consider revising so your readers won’t have to work and still make the wrong assumption.

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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

4 comments on “Nouns in a Stream–What Do They Mean?”

  • When conciseness is important, can we use punctuation to clarify the meaning of a noun stream?

    Business Writing Program–Registration Information


    Attendance Incentives Policy Survey: Report

    Feel free to delete this post if my examples are way off track. 🙂

    Another great post that has me thinking!

  • JJB, you are right: punctuation can explain a stream of nouns. Your second example needs more, though, to be clear. Why not throw in a tiny preposition or two?

  • The sign seems perfectly clear. At least in the context of a highway and the speed of highway traffice. It would seem, at least to me, that those who erected the sign intended only one message and wanted it be said by those speeding by. Your other printed examples are clearly for a different reading environment.

  • Lynn,

    Certainly a good post.

    Sometimes when I write a long stream of nouns in an email I start wondering how would my end customer perceive it.

    I think that sometimes the problem is that we are very much used to a certain local phrase (used only inside the company or a circle of people) that we do not realize others do not understand it. The solution, of course, is to always double-read what you wrote and put yourself in the shoes of an outsider.

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