Tighten Up Those Noun Phrases

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Like a good stock car driver analyzing various sections of the track to find an edge, a good writer should always find better ways to communicate with his or her readers. One way is to analyze the noun phrases the writer is using. A noun phrase is one or more words used to describe a person, animal, place, thing, and sometimes abstract ideas.


In a previous WB article, I discussed using pronouns and their antecedents properly. Well, pronouns are actually noun phrases, so I won't be repeating myself here again.




Noun phrases can enhanced can be enhanced with adjectives. In English, we always put adjectives just before the noun to build our noun phrase. Each adjective gives a chance for the writer to relay information to the reader. Consider the three sentences:


  • A man walked down the street.
  • A tall skinny Caucasian man walked down the street.
  • A tall skinny Caucasian man walked down the empty, dirty, sullen street.

Which sentence provides more information for the reader?


You will notice that commas were not used in the first noun phrase (man) but were used to separate the adjectives in the second (street). As a general rule, commas should not be used to separate adjectives when the adjectives have a connection with each other to build the description. And in these cases, there is a preferred order of how the adjectives should be placed: for example, most of us would not write "A skinny Caucasian tall man . . ." Somehow most English speakers have a good instinct for this correct order.


The connection between the adjectives is not so strong, commas should be used to separate the adjectives. Undoubtedly the second noun phrase could have been written without commas, but maybe the writer was trying for a certain effect, trying to disconnect the "empty", "dirty," and "sullen."




Adjectives go to the left of the noun, but we can also modify to the right of a noun by using relative clauses. Relative clauses are phrases which often start with "who," "which," and "that." To rewrite the third previous sentences with relative clauses:


A man who was tall, skinny, and Caucasian walked down the street that was empty, dirty and sullen.


While this sentence is a bit clumsy, it offers a good comparison between using adjectives and relative clauses.


There are two types of relative clauses: restrictive and non-restrictive. To make this point, consider a meeting of national leaders:


The prime minister who was wearing a red tie spoke first.

The prime minister, who was wearing a red tie, spoke first.


The first case was the restrictive clause and it is not offset with commas. In this case, there are several prime ministers at the meeting and the writer is picking one of them out from the others; in this case, the one wearing the red tie.


The second case is non-restrictive and is offset by commas. In this case, either the writer has conveyed which prime minister is the focus from previous context or maybe the meeting has only one prime minister and several presidents. The relative clause ". . . , who is wearing the red tie, . . . " is only providing additional information. The use of commas in relative clauses is conveying some subtle information.


"Who" can be used in both restrictive settings and non-restrictive settings. "That" is preferred for restrictive. "Which" is preferred for non-restrictive. Other interrogative pronouns can also be used to start relative clauses.


  • The red tie that was worn by the prime minister at the G7 summit was auctioned for charity.
  • The red tie, which used to belong to the prime minister, is in a collection of famous ties.
  • The G7 Summit where the prime minister wore his famous red tie is regarded as a historical meeting.
  • The last G7 Summit, when the world was at the brink of war, proved to useful to ease international tensions.


In each case, the reader should see how the relative clause enhances the description of the previous noun phrase. The writer has give additional information he believes will be important for the reader to better understand the story.  Note that the third sentence is trying to pick one of several G7 summits. But in the fourth sentence already has the summit picked out by using the word "last". So its relative clause becomes non-restrictive and therefore is offset by commas.




Appositives can be described as shortened versions of relative clauses. The same restrictive/non-restrictive rules apply:


  • WriterBeat, an online forum for writers, is slowly gaining popularity.
  • The online forum for writers Writerbeat is slowly gaining popularity.


In the first sentence the noun phrase is "WriterBeat," which is already well identified by its name. Its modifier "an online forum for writer" is only providing additional information for the reader; i.e. it is non restrictive and requires commas. 


In the second sentence, the grammar roles are reversed. "The online forum for writers" becomes the noun phrase. "WriterBeat" is now the modifier and it signals which forum of several online forums the writer is talking about. The lack of commas communicates this information quite well.





I have used the term "modifiers" somewhat loosely in this article. Often grammarians will consider this term only to mean a prepositional or gerund phrase to the left of the noun phrase. Here are some examples:


  • By swimming three times a week, I slowly saw my strength improve.
  • Out on his own for the first time, 18-year old Mark finally had to do his own laundry.

Modifiers, in my opinion, should be separated by commas. But this usage is often debated in grammarian circles. Note how the modifier describes the noun phrase a little better: "swimming" describes "I" and "out on his own" describes "Mark." This is the rule to properly use modifiers: the modifier should describe the noun phrase to its immediate right.


Misplaced Modifier


  • By swimming three times a week, my wife slowly saw my strength improve.

I think many readers will realize that I--not my wife--was doing the swimming. Yet the modifier seems to suggest that she was swimming, which does not make a lot of sense because it was my strength that was improving.


Dangling Modifier

  • By swimming three times a week, my strength improved.

In this case, there really is no noun phrase in the sentence to identify with swimming. "My strength" does not swim.


Dangling and misplaced modifiers are quite easy for writers to overlook because they fully understand what they are talking about. In the copy edit stage of writing, the modifiers should be identified and then connected directly with the appropriate noun phrases. If this check is not done, sentences can be somewhat comical and give an amateur presentation.


  • Writing this WB article, some readers will gain some new insights into better writing.

Hey, I knew what I was talking about!





I said I wouldn't bring pronouns back into this article. But I'm going to bring in "demonstrative pronouns", which are usually "this", "that", "these", and "those." I'm bringing this grammar to your attention because my English instincts still use this grammar not in the best way for my writing. Consider:


  • I used to be a libertarian. This was later changed to a more progressive political stand.


There should be no doubt that "this" is a pronoun and its antecedent is "libertarian." For some strange reason, I throw a lot of "this's" in my writing--even though it is being used correctly. When I get into my editing stages, I have my "this" radar out--and look to change out this word for a more thorough description.


  • I used to be a libertarian. This freedom-maximizing ideology was later changed to a more progressive political stand.

What I have done with this change is to bring a better description of libertarianism for readers that may not know much about this ideology.


And this brings us to an important writing tool.





While I have not been formally schooled in better writing, I did a lot of self study. One technique that I ran across--and have never seen again--is the "known/unknown" technique. I use this technique a lot in my writing. When the technique is applied, it is amazing at how much better sentences can come together.


The premise of this technique is that the first part of the sentence contains a noun phrase that the reader already understands (known). The writer then uses the second part of the sentence to introduce a new idea or two (unknown). In the next sentence, the "unknown" idea of the previous sentence becomes a known idea, so it can be used in the first part of the second sentence. 


Maybe it's better to explain this by example. Let's assume that the reader fully understands what the writer means with "prime minister" is introduced in this text:


The prime minister (known) wore a red tie (unknown) at the historical G7 summit (unknown). That red tie (known) was later donated to the Canadian Red Cross (unknown). The Red Cross (known) put the tie (known) up for a fundraising auction (unknown). The auction (known) raised $200,000 for flood victims in BC. (unknown).


Here is the same ideas with the noun phrases all jumbled up.


Flood victims in BC got an additional $200,000 in funds. The prime minister donated a red tie to the Canadian Red Cross, who put it in a fundraising auction. The G7 Summit was the last time the prime minister wore the tie.


In this last paragraph, you will find two unknown noun phrases occupying the first part of sentences: "Flood victims" and "G7 Summit". Many readers will be a little lost in this second paragraph even though the two paragraphs more or less say the same thing. Using the known/unknown technique will better construct this paragraph--for the benefit of the reader. 


Using the known/unknown technique usually means that writer has to put more effort into his work. I usually do not use this technique in my first drafts, just let my English instincts put the words together. But in the third of fourth round of editing, I will start consciously analyzing the known and unknown noun phrases and rearranging sentences--especially if I sense the paragraph is confusing.
















A. Jones Added May 28, 2018 - 7:02pm
As usual, Volek is a frothy, sparkling fountain of misinformation on English grammar.
A. Jones Added May 29, 2018 - 2:46am
I don't know of any grammar or style guide suggesting that adjectives before a noun should not have commas. Volek's sentence is only correctly punctuated like this:
A tall, skinny, Caucasian, man walked down the empty, dirty, sullen street.
I don't know of any grammar or style guide suggesting the following:
As a general rule, commas should not be used to separate adjectives when the adjectives have a connection with each other to build the description.
There's as much of a connection among the adjectives tall, skinny, Caucasian as there is among the adjectives empty, dirty, sullen. If we use commas to separate the latter adjectives, we should use commas to separate the former adjectives, as well.
In any case, a general rule of good writing has always been succinctness. Rather than piling on adjectives to describe a noun, it's more effective to find the right noun that already incorporates the descriptive characteristics of those adjectives.
Instead of "The strict, bossy, mean, old woman" just write "The harridan." 
Instead of "The large, heavy, nail" just write "The spike."
Stone-Eater Added May 29, 2018 - 7:32am
That system on where to place the adjectives is the same as in German. But we use commas:
A tall, skinny, Caucasian, man walked down the empty, dirty, sullen street.
Ein langer, dünner weisser Mann lief der leeren, dreckigen und öden Strasse entlang. 
We place an UND (and) between the second last and last adjective. Otherwise no difference. And "lief  .......... entlang" means "walked down". "Caucasian" is not known here. Caucasian would translate into Georgian or Aserbaidschani, where these mountains are located, but would never define a general "white European".
Dino Manalis Added May 29, 2018 - 9:15am
 Be careful, because words can be powerful!
Dave Volek Added May 29, 2018 - 11:16am
Serial commas can start fistfights between American and British grammarians:
Jack ate the potatoes, carrots, and steak. (American English)
Jack ate the potatoes, carrots and steak. (British English)
Canadian grammarians will start fistfights whether we should follow the American way or the British way. Central and eastern Canada prefers British ways. Western Canada prefers the American way. 
Commas have a few other usages. I may or may not write an article on this topic.
I used to write mostly by instinct. Seldom did I ever analyze the words I was putting down on paper. I found myself teaching ESL--and that's where I became more conscious that "words can be powerful." Skilled writers use a combination of instinct and technical application.
Stone-Eater Added May 29, 2018 - 11:35am
My (German) logic would say when you add an "and" no comma is required. It just......sounds better....
A. Jones Added May 29, 2018 - 4:55pm
Regarding serial commas, observe the following sentences:
"His politics were honed by his parents, Ayn Rand and God."
"His politics were honed by his parents, Ayn Rand, and God."
Those two sentences comprise the same words but they mean different things because of their punctuation. In the first, the implication (perhaps unintentional) is that his parents are Ayn Rand and God, since those two nouns appear to be in apposition with the previous noun, "parents."
In the second, the meaning is clearer: his politics were honed by three nouns — parents, Ayn Rand, and God.
In such constructions, the final serial comma is necessary.
Neil Lock Added May 30, 2018 - 4:10pm
Dave: My own guideline to myself (often broken!) is not to try to put too much into one sentence. I might have written the third version of your first example more like: “A man walked down the street. He was tall and thin, with white skin and Caucasian features. The street he was walking down was gloomy, dirty and empty of people.” I was also surprised that you used “sullen” rather than “gloomy” – in Britsk, “sullen” usually means unwilling to speak, rather than badly lit.
As to Oxford commas, as a former Cambridge man I say only use them if you have to. But I wouldn’t say either way is right or wrong. It depends on what I call “cadence” (which I think of as how well it sounds when you read it back to yourself). I think Stone-Eater is saying something similar too in his comment.
On “appositives,” I totally disagree with your second example. Not only would I put commas either side of the word “WriterBeat,” but I would also dignify the word with quotes either side. The first, because it is WriterBeat that is the true subject of the sentence, and the commas give it added weight. The second, because you are defining this thing you call “WriterBeat.” After all, you wouldn’t write this sentence if you had already mentioned WriterBeat earlier in the essay.
On your used-to-be-libertarian example, if I wanted to convey your meaning I would have said: “I used to be a libertarian. I later moved to a more progressive stand.” Shorter, paints a picture, and gets rid of an unnecessary passive!
Of course, if either you or I were the experts we would like to be, we would have dozens of best-selling novels already on our CVs... :-)
Dave Volek Added May 30, 2018 - 4:37pm
All great comments! No, I'm not going to get into fistfight with you. These points are not worth the loss of a good relationship. Good writers eventually develop their own style for certain things, and even they will offend a grammarian or two. I work alongside one who believes she has the ultimate authority on the English language. I don't meet her standards.
I was going to add how to emphasize or de-emphasize the appositive. Consider:
The online forum for writers--Writerbeat--is slowly gaining popularity.
The online forum for writers Writerbeat is slowly gaining popularity.
The online forum for writers (Writerbeat) is slowly gaining popularity.
Em-dashes tend to emphasize the appositive. Parentheses tend to de-emphasize the appositive. I use these grammar tools quite a bit--even in places other than appositives. But they should be used carefully and with a purpose in mind. 
One grammarian called em-dashes, commas, and parentheses as "parenthetical elements". I haven't encountered this term since.
In either of these three cases, the appositive would still be restrictive because the context I schemed the situation is that the writer is picking one forum from the other forums.
Given that context, I would say that the third case doesn't work for me. Trying to point out one particular forum and then de-emphasize it does not seem logical to me.
Neil Lock Added May 30, 2018 - 5:15pm
Dave: I agree, your third example doesn't work. I prefer the second, but I'd still put commas either side of the subject of the sentence.
Sorry, gotta "dash" to bed fairly soon...
Benjamin Goldstein Added Jun 1, 2018 - 3:22pm
And then there are the run-away adjectives. The controversial Dave Volek wrote a populist article about grammar.
Just drop some baseless allegations and undefined words which are built up to vague slurs over time in a sentence and move on.
Dave Volek Added Jun 1, 2018 - 4:31pm
On one hand, I can see the comical nature of your statement.
On the other hand, I can see how misleading adjectives can become. 
"Controversial"? Hmmm. Getting rid of political parties is indeed controversial, but I really haven't found anyone to "follow" me in my quest. If the rest of the world casts me as a nutcase, am I truly controversial?
"Populist"? Hmmmm. While I believe my TDG puts governance in more control in the hands of the people, no one really wants to hear about it. 
It all depends on how subtly one wants to define "controversial" and "populist". I could be be one--or the other--or both--or neither.
Benjamin Goldstein Added Jun 1, 2018 - 5:57pm
That's the magic of the hit-and-run adjectives. They throw a shade on somebody and explain nothing.

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