Recently in a post for the Editors and Writers group I’m part of via LinkedIn, a poster asked for what annoys us most when we’re editing other people’s writing.

I wrote that it was noun strings (also called ‘noun stacks’), those wonderful series of words that people tend to tie together into one long descriptor. To illustrate, witness these three examples:

  • We have installed a workplace activity monitoring software application (WAMSA) to survey telecommuting employee activity.
  • Employees can achieve resolution of these issues through the application of the Human Resource employee dispute resolution policy.
  • Proper usage of this ointment will result in hand skin condition improvement.

You may notice that many of these nouns function as adjectives in the string, and that overall the writing has quite a passive tone.

And if you’ve seen these kinds of constructions in writing you encounter (or create yourself), you may also see them turned into lettered acronym, as in the first example. No surprise given that trying to say them out-loud requires you to take a few breaths so that you can finish!broken_tape_orange_sm

You may think this kind of writing is mostly a corporate or technical phenomenon. But, as in the third example, they can crop up just as often in health care and not-for-profit environments.

Some writers attribute this kind of writing as laziness, but I would venture that it takes some thought to put together such a long construction (though through long-term exposure to them, I actually made up the above examples in a couple minutes).

But I would add that it’s an effort better spent creating clearer alternatives, such as the following:


From: We have installed a workplace activity monitoring software application (WAMSA) to survey telecommuting employee activity.

To: To get a better handle on how employees who telecommute are using their time, we have installed software that monitors their activity while at home.


From: Employees can achieve resolution of these issues through the application of the Human Resource employee dispute resolution policy.

To: You can resolve these issues by following Human Resources’ Policy for Resolving Disputes.


From: Proper usage of this ointment will result in hand skin condition improvement.

To: If you use this ointment properly, the condition of your hands’ skin will improve.


Next time you find yourself about to create a noun string, try pulling those words apart into a clearer phrase. Your readers will thank you.

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