What a (Noun) Cluster

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: noun cluster

  • 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
  • search engine optimization domain name notification proposal notice (I am not making that up)

Sometimes called noun stacksnoun strings, or noun compoundsnoun piles, anyone?—noun clusters can shut down your comprehension even if you understand each word. Web-accessibility specialist Cliff Tyllick, who prefers the term noun pileups, says that several nouns in a row do to the flow of reading what a multicar pileup does to the flow of traffic. When you encounter a noun cluster, you stop. You may have to back up. You may navigate around the words. You may even take the nearest exit and 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.

Here’s my Listly (interactive) list of noun-cluster clunkers. Like them. Share them. Add to them. Try it!

Headline for Noun-Cluster Clunkers
 REPORT
30 items   2 followers   3 votes   892 views

Noun-Cluster Clunkers

Noun-cluster busters unite! Add your own discoveries. Clusters of 4+ preferred. Adjectives allowed.
"A verb, Senator, we need a verb!" —Doonesbury cartoon strip

1

engagement employment focused case management

Apr 29, 2014
engagement employment focused case management
2

network services provisioning process

Apr 11, 2014
network services provisioning process
3

Common College Application Completion Workshop

Mar 19, 2014
Common College Application Completion Workshop

Source (lots more here): Noun Clusters

4

remote encryption passphrase reset

Mar 19, 2014
remote encryption passphrase reset
5

disaster recovery site database failover

May 23, 2014
disaster recovery site database failover
6

open web services back end

May 28, 2014
open web services back end
7

online real time cloud data landscape view

Jun 02, 2014
online real time cloud data landscape view
8

cloud service orchestration work packages and workflows

Jun 02, 2014
cloud service orchestration work packages and workflows
9

business process improvement methodologies

Jun 09, 2014
business process improvement methodologies
10

security policy orchestration software

Jun 28, 2014
security policy orchestration software
11

business computing solution areas

Jun 30, 2014
business computing solution areas
12

service level agreement achievement percentage

Jun 30, 2014
service level agreement achievement percentage
13

batch high performance computing facility

Jul 11, 2014
batch high performance computing facility
14

engagement key performance indicators

Jul 15, 2014
engagement key performance indicators
Jul 19, 2014 - contentrules.com - 121
frame accurate built in web based low resolution browse and rough cut edit tool

shared by Liz Berezin in a comment on the noun-cluster "Content Rules" blog post

16

client device fleet management practices

Jul 24, 2014
client device fleet management practices
17

business optimized one stop shop collaboration capability

Jul 29, 2014
business optimized one stop shop collaboration capability
18

data center infrastructure management solution

Jul 29, 2014
data center infrastructure management solution
19

data center project lifecycle

Aug 09, 2014
data center project lifecycle
20

pressure and return air temperature sensors

Aug 09, 2014
pressure and return air temperature sensors
21

enterprise content strategy project lifecycle

Sep 13, 2014
enterprise content strategy project lifecycle
22

enterprise content team stakeholder list

Sep 13, 2014
enterprise content team stakeholder list
23

mobile WLAN access user alternate credential store

Oct 26, 2014
mobile WLAN access user alternate credential store
24

collaborative visual data analysis solution

Oct 27, 2014
collaborative visual data analysis solution
25

collaborative visual data analysis capabilities

Oct 27, 2014
collaborative visual data analysis capabilities

Grape image (without the words) courtesy of KnowItSome [GNU Free Documentation LicenseCC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC-BY-2.5] via Wikimedia Commons.

This post first appeared July 15, 2014, as a guest post on the Content Rules blog.

4 thoughts on “What a (Noun) Cluster

  1. Spot on. and often times the nouns blend together to form a cliche and then they start string cliches together. When will it end?

    Thanks for sharing, I enjoy your posts and your perspectives.

    Dave

  2. Thank you, thank you. I worked for a VP of Marketing at a small software company, and I could NOT get him to grasp this. His ad headlines were — may I say it? — clusterf**ks.

    Now I’ll have this post bookmarked to show to future clients or bosses who think they can write.

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