Noun pile etiquette question

5 Feb

The noun piles have been out in force in the BBC’s top 10 news lists recently:

They’re more common (and more readily understood) in Britain than the US, and possibly more common on the BBC news site* than anywhere else – all of these were found on one January evening. They’re a bit of an eyeful, but what they lack in clarity they make up for in brevity.

Not all of them are hard to understand. “New York parking spot row” is fine, even if you’re unfamiliar with the story. Others contain a small amount of ambiguity: “footballer plane search” could be a search for a footballer by plane, or (as was sadly the case) a search for him and his plane. Others will only be intelligible to those already au fait with the news: “browser warning U-turn” refers to the Daily Mail’s unhappiness with the fact that one Microsoft Edge plugin marks its site as fake news. “Care home patient pregnancy” refers to a scandal over a vulnerable woman in an institution who has given birth to a child possibly fathered by one of the staff.

As a construction, they look like a gleeful free-for-all, but there are some things that don’t quite work even in noun piles. Recently, HeadsUp, a leading authority on the subject, unearthed these two:

The first one – “duke crash A-road” – is fine. The second one, though, is a bit odd. No matter how ambitious noun piles are, they all tend to follow one basic rule: that every noun added to the pile further narrows and defines the thing being talked about. So: “the speed limit”. Which speed limit? The “road speed limit”. Which road? “The crash road”. Which crash road? “The Prince Philip crash road”. Ah, that one.

But “A149” doesn’t fit into that sequence because it doesn’t contribute to the narrowing-down process. It’s not a defining feature of the “Prince Philip crash road”; it is the Prince Philip crash road. It’s a (much shorter) synonym for the noun pile as a whole. Read in the way one conventionally parses noun piles, it suggests that there might be two A149s, a Prince Philip one and a non-Prince Philip one, and of course there’s only one.

It looks less like a noun pile and more like a URL slug or painstaking SEO headline with all possible search terms included. Which helps with understanding, of course: but if you’re tight for space, you might not want to be describing the same thing twice.

 

*Possibly, one suspects, because the headline counts are so tight on the Most Read lists.

 

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2 Responses to “Noun pile etiquette question”

  1. Adrian Morgan February 7, 2019 at 5:09 am #

    Prince Philip is the name of a series of androids; A149 is the model number.

    • edlatham February 7, 2019 at 8:12 am #

      That would explain a lot!

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