I’ve discussed noun chains in a previous posting (http://wordsontheline.blogspot.com/2007/02/unlink-that-noun-chain.html). Noun chains (i.e., a succession of nouns in a sentence) cause reading challenges and require careful editing. Here’s an example:
This is the quality assurance department intervention project focus group completion report.
A nine-word noun chain—that’s a record! Such phrases may have some vaguely abstract meaning to the person who wrote it, but it is utterly ambiguous to anyone trying to understand it.
Joseph M. Williams walks his readers through a useful case study on page 91 of Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace, urging rewrites of such phrases by reversing their order. His advice would work in this case. Let’s start with the quality assurance group and then work backwards: focus group, then pull completion report, and finally intervention project, with a couple extra words for clarity. In this case the 14-word second draft is an improvement over the more concise but much foggier 12-word first draft:
The quality assurance department’s focus group presents this completion report on the intervention project.