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
- search engine optimization domain name notification proposal notice (I am not making that up)
Sometimes called noun stacks, noun strings, or noun compounds—noun 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.
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!
Noun-cluster busters unite! Add your own discoveries. Clusters of 4+ preferred. Adjectives allowed.
"A verb, Senator, we need a verb!" —Doonesbury cartoon strip
engagement employment focused case management
network services provisioning process
Common College Application Completion Workshop
Source (lots more here): Noun Clusters
remote encryption passphrase reset
disaster recovery site database failover
open web services back end
online real time cloud data landscape view
cloud service orchestration work packages and workflows
business process improvement methodologies
security policy orchestration software
business computing solution areas
service level agreement achievement percentage
batch high performance computing facility
engagement key performance indicators
shared by Liz Berezin in a comment on the noun-cluster "Content Rules" blog post
client device fleet management practices
business optimized one stop shop collaboration capability
data center infrastructure management solution
data center project lifecycle
pressure and return air temperature sensors
enterprise content strategy project lifecycle
enterprise content team stakeholder list
mobile WLAN access user alternate credential store
collaborative visual data analysis solution
collaborative visual data analysis capabilities
This post first appeared July 15, 2014, as a guest post on the Content Rules blog.