Sunday, April 10, 2016

Found Around—Random Writing Tip 4: Loose Those Noun Chains!

The previous WORDS ON THE LINE post about nominalizing showed how business and technical writers tend to eschew verbs in favor of nouns. This post shows just how enamored of nouns they some of them really are.

When nouns join forces uninterrupted by verbs or even prepositional phrases, expect clarity issues. Three nouns in a row are easy enough to understand, especially in job titles such as Assistant Marketing Director or Case Management Supervisor, and even in technical applications like wound dressing technique or sound wave mechanism. But things get trickier once we get carried away with nouns. Here are four examples:
  • 4-Noun Chain — epoxy coating life expectancy. Technical writers might think they're more concise in writing the noun chain than in writing life expectancy of the epoxy coating, but the prepositional phrase in the six-word rewrite is just a tad easier to understand.
  • 5-Noun Chain — undersea pipeline intrusion detection system. We might get it. A system exists for detecting intrusions in pipelines under a sea bed. But admit it: you had to read it twice, right? Maybe intrusion detection system for undersea pipelines would be an improvement.
  • 6-Noun Chain — data communication network efficiency inspection report. Whoever made up this one is either an automaton or someone with a cruel sense of humor. Actually, all six words are not necessary in this phrase. Reasonable readers would prefer any of these three because the deleted words can be inferred in the context: report on data network efficiency, or report on communication network efficiency, or efficiency report on the communication network.
  • 7-Noun Chain  standard M1 brake erosion acceleration rate analysis. Gimme a break! In this case, we should create a verb to anchor some of those runaway nouns. Perhaps analyze the acceleration rate of the standard M1 brake erosion would do, though it isn't much better. Maybe analyze the standard M1 brakes for the acceleration rate of their erosion would work better—but not the original, please.