Noun Clusters

My favorite Doonesbury cartoon, from January 23, 1980, features a press conference. A journalist asks Senator Kennedy a question. The senator responds with a series of strung-together phrases: “Well, in this moment of national crisis, any second-guessing that I … er … personally, with respect to the interests of peace. Moreover, with the … uh … unchallenged Soviet threat, the … er … grain embargo which …  uh …  as far as strong leadership in this country! Now, in respect to the …” The journalist interrupts: “A verb, Senator, we need a verb.”

That line— “A verb, Senator, we need a verb”—pops into my head every time I encounter a noun cluster, by which I mean a string of four or more words that normally function as nouns (with the occasional adjective thrown in). If you read much technical text, you know what I’m talking about. Noun clusters are phrases like these:

  • batch high performance computing facility
  • service level agreement achievement percentage
  • business computing solution areas
  • security policy orchestration software
  • business process improvement methodologies
  • cloud service orchestration workflows
  • online real time cloud data landscape view
  • open web services back end
  • disaster recovery site database failover
  • engagement employment focused case management
  • network services provisioning process
  • remote encryption passphrase reset

Sometimes called noun stacksnoun strings, or noun compoundsnoun piles, anyone?—noun clusters can shut down your comprehension even if you understand each word. You may stop and reread. You may draw an incorrect conclusion. You may skip over the words. Or you may do the last thing the writer wanted you to do: move on to someone else’s words.

To bust noun clusters when you write or edit, first get clear on what you want to say. If you don’t know, ask; you can’t bust a noun cluster until you understand what it means—and noun clusters notoriously obscure meaning. Then, when you know what needs to be said, try these techniques:

Rearrange the words.
Convert a noun to a verb.
Add hyphens.
Add punctuation.
Bag it all and rephrase.

Check out these alternatives to a few of the above examples. (I guessed at the meaning on some of these. If I were revising for a client, I’d ask for confirmation.)

  • a high-performance, batch-computing facility
  • the percentage of service-level agreements achieved
  • areas [types?] of business-computing solution
  • software that orchestrates security policies
  • methodologies that improve business processes

You get the idea.

And you can do one more thing. Have fun with your clusters. Collect and share them with word lovers everywhere. You can do just that by adding to my list, “Noun-Cluster Clunkers.” Let me put it another way. Please join me in some noun cluster clunker list addition creation activity merry-making. Consider it preparation for your next press conference.

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