Posted by: Jack Henry | October 31, 2019

Editor’s Corner: Revising Noun Strings

Good morning, writers and readers. It’s another fine day—a good day to think about noun strings (a definition is upcoming).

We all know that technical and business writing needs to be concise. Let’s face it, people aren’t reading this kind of material for pleasure (not sane people, anyway); they’re reading to get specific information or because they need to complete a task. Because the writing needs to be concise, writers sometimes make the mistake of trying to fit too much information into too few words. They often use long noun strings that are hard for readers to unpack; a noun string is a group of nouns jammed together, like this:

  • We will focus on front-office employee efficiency enhancement procedures development.

Now that’s a doozy! I count six nouns in a row (one of them hyphenated). If you tend to use noun strings in your writing, you’re not alone. Technical writing is rife with them. However, our goal is to ensure that our writing is easy to understand. And long noun strings hinder comprehension. That means you should break up long noun strings to two nouns in a row—three at most. And you can do that by reversing the word order.

Exactly how do you do that? When you need to revise a long noun string, a fairly easy way to do it is to start at the end of the noun string and work your way back. In our example (repeated below), the last noun is development:

  • We will focus on front-office employee efficiency enhancement procedures development.

So, we’ll move development up, but we need to change the form of the word development to a gerund (an “ing” word)—stick with me, I think this will start to make sense in a minute:

  • We will focus on developing…

There are usually multiple ways to revise. For instance, you could also say “We will focus on the development of…” I chose developing because it’s shorter. The goals are to break up the noun string and to be clear and concise.

Now we just continue moving backward—and the sentence kind of falls into place:

  • We will focus on developing procedures…

The next noun enhancement becomes a verb: to enhance:

  • We will focus on developing procedures to enhance…

Continuing backward, we add the word efficiency:

  • We will focus on developing procedures to enhance the efficiency…

And the final phrase front-office employees can stay as it is because front-office is working as an adjective that clarifies which employees we’re discussing. We end up with this:

  • We will focus on developing procedures to enhance the efficiency of front-office employees.

We could say “…to enhance the efficiency of employees in the front office” but again, I opted for the shorter revision.

If this seems a little confusing, don’t worry so much about the “form of the word” (noun, verb, gerund). Think more about starting at the end of the noun string and working your way back—that’s the trick. Let’s try another example:

  • I had to complete a workplace conflict management course.

Start at the end of the noun string:

  • I had to complete a course…

Now what makes sense when breaking up those last three nouns? You have a few options: you could leave conflict management together since it’s a common phrase, or you could break it up:

  • I had to complete a course on conflict management…
  • I had to complete a course for managing conflict…

And now just finish it off:

  • I had to complete a course on conflict management in the workplace.
  • I had to complete a course for managing conflict in the workplace.

This process takes a little practice, but after a few revisions, I think you’ll find that the writing gets easier. And I can tell you for sure that the reading will be easier for your audience.

If you’re interested, here are a couple more sentences you can practice on:

  • You must sign the information disclosure authorization form.
  • I found a useful online mortgage payment calculation tool.

Scroll down to see possible revisions.

  • You must sign the form to authorize the disclosure of information.
  • I found a useful online tool for calculating mortgage payments.

Thanks for sticking with me today. This was a long one. You get extra points for reading to the end. 😊

Donna Bradley Burcher | Senior Technical Editor | Symitar®

8985 Balboa Ave. | San Diego, CA 92123 | Ph. 619.278.0432 | Ext: 765432

About Editor’s Corner

Editor’s Corner keeps your communication skills sharp by providing information on grammar, punctuation, JHA style, and all things English. As editors, we spend our days reading, researching, and revising other people’s writing. We love to spend a few extra minutes to share what we learn with you and keep it fun while we’re doing it.

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