Noun noun noun noun noun verb

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The most spectacular compound noun I've seen this week was in the UK free newspaper Metro, which I pick up on the bus in Edinburgh. I never read the celebrity gossip pages, of course. But I did happen to notice this headline on page 25 yesterday:

Amy husband bribery plot landlord cleared

That's a non-finite passive clause consisting of a subject, in the form of five nouns in a complex nominal construction, and one verb in the past participle form. Is the clause grammatical? One hundred percent, I think. Is it admirable style? Well, for a newspaper given away free on the 29 bus, maybe it's churlish to quibble about syntactic clunkiness. Non-clunkiness is not the central issue. The second most important desideratum for a headline is that it should make you look and perhaps read the story on the South Bridge before you get off at St Patrick Square; and the most important of all is that it should fit the column width. For this one they had 20 cm. Not enough room to add an apostrophe and an s so that Amy could be made into a genitive determiner. Referring to Fielder-Civil as Amy's husband would have been much closer to normal style, but they ran out of horizontal space given the prior choice of point size.

The story is about the acquittal of a pub landlord (James King) who was charged with participating in a plot to pervert the course of justice by accepting a bribe offered by the husband (Blake Fielder-Civil) of the accomplished and hopelessly drug-addicted singer Amy Winehouse. What kind of landlord? A plot landlord. What kind of plot? A bribery plot. Which bribery plot? The Amy husband bribery plot.

You're meant to know all about this plot already. It has been in and out of the newspapers for a couple of years. The odious Fielder-Civil and his friend Michael Brown attacked James King at a pub in Hoxton, in East London, beating him up badly enough to fracture his cheekbone. Then, when they sobered up, they set about bribing him so they could stay out of jail. Two hundred thousand quid — and as of today that's nearly $400,000. Probably Amy was to be tapped for the money, but it turned out that no evidence on that point was brought, which is part of why King was cleared of accepting a bribe. He said he was intimidated into dropping the charges. Well, they're not dropped now. Fielder-Civil and Brown face maybe five years in jail. Amy says she will wait for her beloved husband, though it has to be acknowledged that she spends much of her time in nightclubs, hospitals, clinics, and courtrooms, and very little time on stage or in the recording studio. The drink and drugs are wrecking her career. Right now the hot topic in the news is whether the doctors who have just diagnosed her with emphysema, and told her that continuing to smoke crack will kill her, will approve her leaving hospital to perform at the big pop festival at Glastonbury. But I never read any of this.

Anyway, it's only the first two words of that headline above that strike me as really unusual and not at all commendable style. It is really unusual for close and familiar relationships like husbandhood, wifehood, sisterhood, parenthood, being a body part of, and simple possession to be expressed with a modifier + head construction (Amy husband) rather than a genitive determiner + head construction (Amy's husband). But you can't ban proper nouns like Amy from being attributive modifiers of nouns: you can see proper nouns as noun modifiers in Apple computer, Beatles fan, Cezanne painting, Dilbert strip, Elvis impersonator, Jesus freak, London fog, Paris suburbs, RCA record, Toyota pickup… there are literally more cases than you can count (because new proper names are being made up all the time). And the semantic range is very wide indeed: put two nouns together and the meaning of the result can be almost (but not quite) anything you like. The Metro simply took that fully grammatical pattern and pushed it a couple of centimeters further than anyone would normally go, to save a centimeter and a half of column width.


  1. Bunny Mellon said,

    June 27, 2008 @ 4:11 am

    But 'Amy husband' doesn't only save space, it actually means something slightly different than 'Amy's husband'. Without the genitive 's it implies that Amy is the main subject and her husband is an appendage of Amy. Toyota's landcruiser means something different than Toyota Landcruiser, doesn't it?

  2. Andrew Clegg said,

    June 27, 2008 @ 5:11 am

    I don't really read newspapers, but I've got so used to seeing weird non-possessives like "Amy husband" on tabloid covers that a proper genitive there would just seem strange. I don't have any figures (Breakfast Experiment anyone?) but these odd constructions seem to be the norm nowadays, subjectively, but only in the pathological world of news headlines.

    By the way, this text box looks too wide on Firefox 3 on Linux. Roughly the last word of each line is obscured by the Blogroll. This remains the case if I shrink or grow the text.


  3. George Bush said,

    June 27, 2008 @ 6:51 am

    Rarely are the question asked "Is our clause it grammatical?"

  4. Money Mellon said,

    June 27, 2008 @ 7:29 am

    …this text box looks too wide on Firefox 3…

    It looks quite all right on my imac, though. The one with the 24" screen with a brushed aluminiun edge.

  5. Nik Berry said,

    June 27, 2008 @ 8:13 am

    How about the BBC's news website yesterday – "Maze escaper kidnap case collapse"

    Five nouns, and who needs a verb?

  6. James Wimberley said,

    June 27, 2008 @ 10:32 am

    Newspaper headline syntax looks equivalent to nongeek Google search syntax. (Only geeks use Boolean operators.)

  7. John Cowan said,

    June 27, 2008 @ 10:48 am

    My favorite headline of this type, somewhat worse in some ways, is CLUB FIGHT BLOCKS RAIL RIVER TUBE PLAN.

  8. Bill Walderman said,

    June 27, 2008 @ 11:03 am

    It strikes me that the strangeness lies not so much in the piling on of attributive nouns (though that too presents a problem for rapid comprehension) as the use of the given name instead of the surname. Wouldn't the headline seem less weird if it read: "Winehouse husband bribery plot landlord cleared"?

  9. Geoffrey K. Pullum said,

    June 27, 2008 @ 11:07 am

    @ Bunny Mellon: quite right, you do get semantic differences between attributive modifier noun + head noun on the one hand and genitive determiner noun phrase + head nominal on the other.

    @ Nik Berry: lovely example. I was almost sad that mine wasn't "Amy husband bribery plot landlord acquittal". But that of course would be slightly wider.

  10. David Marjanović said,

    June 27, 2008 @ 11:13 am

    That's why it's a good thing that German writes compound nouns without spaces: doing so would have made clear who the amyhusband is, and would also have made clearer to the author how unidiomatic this construction is, never mind showing him just how long the whole compound is.

    (Of course, the analogy to German has limits. Behold the yeast artificial chromosome — here we have a noun modifying {adjective + noun}, which is impossible in German.)

    My favorite headline of this type, somewhat worse in some ways, is CLUB FIGHT BLOCKS RAIL RIVER TUBE PLAN.

    This is worse because it's hard to tell whether there's a verb in it, and if so, which word it is.

  11. David Marjanović said,

    June 27, 2008 @ 11:23 am

    By the way, this text box looks too wide on Firefox 3 on Linux. Roughly the last word of each line is obscured by the Blogroll. This remains the case if I shrink or grow the text.

    Firefox isn't really as good as people keep saying. No problems here on IE7 for Windows.

  12. Boney Mellon said,

    June 27, 2008 @ 11:46 am

    By the way, Geoff's example "Beatles fan" gets on my google (I know they vary) 801,000 hits, while " fan" actually gets more: 839,000. There is even a movie, apparently, called Beatle Fan (2002), as well as a Beatlefan web site. (And just to head it off, genitive "Beatles' fan" isn't recognized by google).

  13. Boney Mellon said,

    June 27, 2008 @ 11:48 am

    Beatles fan…801,000
    Beatle fan….839,000

  14. Josh Millard said,

    June 27, 2008 @ 11:48 am

    "Winehouse husband bribery plot landlord cleared"

    Clearer, yeah (though if Winehouse is the only high-profile Amy with a husband embroiled in a bribery plot lately, perhaps not by much). But it's longish compared to the finished product.

    Perhaps "Winehousband"? "Winehubby"? I think I'm probably not getting a job as a headline editor any time soon.

  15. Boney Mellon said,

    June 27, 2008 @ 11:52 am

    You know, Language Hat has this test button you can press to make sure you have written what you thought you'd written before you inflict all your mistakes on everyone else. Couldn't LL get one of these buttons, or do they cost extra?

  16. Boney Mellon said,

    June 27, 2008 @ 12:00 pm

    "Winehub-bribplot land cleared" 29 spaces.

  17. Tom said,

    June 27, 2008 @ 12:30 pm

    On a vaguely similar note, this headline from the BBC news site a few days ago caught my eye:

    Retail surge fans rate rise fear

    It's perhaps a nice example of the potential ambiguity that's been mentioned in a few recent posts. Every word in it could, on its own, be either a verb or a noun (I think?), and if you try, you can probably come up with about six or seven possible meanings for the phrase. The true one is pretty obvious, but there's still a slight jarring moment when you read it for the first time.

  18. Kris Rhodes said,

    June 27, 2008 @ 12:33 pm

    Many people here are probably familiar with the limit to the nesting of clauses broken by the following sentence:

    The mouse the cat the dog bit chased ran.

    (The mouse ran. The cat chased the mouse. So the mouse the cat chased ran. Meanwhile, the dog bit the cat. So the cat the dog bit chased the mouse, which was running. In other words, the mouse the cat the dog bit chased ran. You can handle one level of nesting here–see the third sentence in this parenthetical paragraph–but one more level of nesting looks like nonsense until you think about it very hard.)

    I wonder whether there might not be a similar phenomenon for compound nouns. To me, the example [i]felt[/i] like it was making perfect sense up to the fourth noun, then when I read the fifth noun it felt like the sentence just sort of fell apart, i.e., sort of stopped being grammatical. (Though this feeling was of course deceptive–the thing is perfectly grammatical.) I had to stop and think about it for a second before I could put together its meaning. This felt a lot like reading the nested sentence I typed above.

    It also feels like reading sentences like "The horse raced past the barn fell," though, and the feeling of a sentence "falling apart" at a particular word happens in that case for a different reason (I think) than in the nested case above. So that might be another explanation for the way the headline "felt" to me as I was reading it.

    Or it may just be a psychological fact about me as an individual.


  19. Arnold Zwicky said,

    June 27, 2008 @ 12:35 pm

    Back in the early days of Language Log, we occasionally touched on long noun-noun compounds (and the problems they pose for readers and parsers). Mark Liberman discussed a 6-noun example in:

    And Geoff Pullum cited a 6-noun example and a 9-noun example in:

    I added a 6-noun case (in which "newsrack" is printed solid) in:

    More recently, I found a 6-noun example in a Palo Alto Daily News headline, 6/10/07: High school exit exam pass rate exceeds last year

    Back in 2005, Martin Delson, who collects these things, sent me a 9-noun monster: a utility efficiency demonstration pilot project evaluation criteria selection process.

    These things are all over the place, especially in bureaucratic prose and headlines.

  20. Kelly D said,

    June 27, 2008 @ 2:06 pm

    "Amy husband" brings to my mind the slang phrase "baby momma" that refers, I hope, to the "mother of my baby" and not a "baby who is also a mommy." Icky.

  21. Sili said,

    June 27, 2008 @ 2:15 pm

    there are literally more cases than you can count

    Now now – don't go mathificating.

    NxN is still countable, so obviously all such noun-noun compounds are countable, too.

  22. Phil said,

    June 27, 2008 @ 3:35 pm

    My favourite, from one of those headline boards the newspaper sellers in the streets have:

    I suppose it's not quite a perfect six-noun sequence: "Midland" is better seen as an adjective since you only ever see the noun as the plural "Midlands".

    I never bought the paper to read the full story, but it was one of the Birmingham local newspapers, about ten years ago.

  23. Peter said,

    June 27, 2008 @ 3:36 pm

    Sili said: "NxN is still countable, so obviously all such noun-noun compounds are countable, too."

    I don't think this is at all obvious, since we know that the collection of infinite sequences of arbitrary digits (of which there only 10, not any N), are not countable.

  24. Xtopher said,

    June 27, 2008 @ 4:12 pm

    If you're going to play the game, you have to use the same # of letters as the original headline. I once wrote heds for a living and it's not an easy task.

    If you say Amy's husband, then don't you have to say husband's bribery? Now you've added 4 extra characters, not to mention a possessive followed by a possessive. awkward.

    How about:

    Landlord cleared in Amy's husband bribery

  25. The Tensor said,

    June 27, 2008 @ 4:25 pm

    Amy husband bribery plot landlord cleared


  26. Neal Goldfarb said,

    June 27, 2008 @ 7:46 pm

    For at least some speakers of AAVE (African American Vernacular English), the possessive form isn't marked with 's. So for them, "Amy husband" (="Amy's husband") would be perfectly normal.

  27. Russell said,

    June 28, 2008 @ 12:18 am

    So what you're saying, Neal, is that Tensor should have said:


  28. Kate said,

    June 28, 2008 @ 11:06 am

    David @ 11:13 –

    But isn't this also a compound noun in German?

    "der mit Amy Winehouse verheiratete und im sich ausweitenden Schmiergeldskandal verwickelten Fielder-Civil"

    Or is that something else?

    Either way, that construction makes my eyes bleed just as much as the original headline.

  29. Q said,

    June 28, 2008 @ 2:54 pm

    Amy? Who is Amy? I read it as "Army" the first time, and it made more sense.

    On an OT note, FF3 works just fine for me with column widths. Maybe you have an extension problem or you've modified your user.css? IE7 sucks things best not described in detail, particularly in terms of security.

  30. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    June 28, 2008 @ 10:29 pm

    @Sili: But "countable" in the sense you mean does not mean "able to be counted". Even if Dr. Pullum had written "uncountable" your comment would be stretch (inferring mathematical jargon where none was meant), but he didn't, and your comment really makes no sense.

    @Peter: If we assume that all such compounds are of finite length, then there are countably many strings, even if we don't specify any specific limit on the length of such compounds, because there are finitely and therefore countably many such compounds of any specific length (per Sili's argument), and there are countably many possible specific lengths, and the union of countably many countable sets is countable. The problem only arises when you allow individual compounds to be of infinite length.

    (This is assuming that we can use spelling or pronunciation as definitive in counting possible compounds: there are finitely many characters, and finitely many phonemes, so there are finitely many combinations of any given number of characters or of any given number of phonemes. However, if we allow e.g. "rat cancer treatment" to be counted as more than one compound — both as "{rat cancer} treatment" and as "rat {cancer treatment}" — then the math is a lot more complicated, and I'm not sure whether we can still guarantee countability.)

  31. Dan Lewis said,

    June 29, 2008 @ 1:40 am

    "Landlord cleared of Fielder-Civil bribery" has the same number of characters (two more caps, though). "Fielder-Civil" has a couple more characters than "Amy husband", if you must have the latter. I think it's much clearer.

    "Landlord's bar bribe busted; FC faces felony" would have been nice if there were room for a subtitle.

  32. Nicholas Clayton said,

    June 30, 2008 @ 7:59 am

    At last a chance to trot out a favourite German compound noun:
    In the context of this post translated as "Hottentot chief aunt murder bid".
    But can't easily eliminate all ambiguity without using an apostrophe.

  33. dut said,

    June 30, 2008 @ 6:59 pm

    As an amateur (but formally educated) linguist, I'm appalled by the notion that an "Amy husband" somehow has the cultural standing of a "Cezanne painting" or a "Toyota Land Rover". Are "husbands" the type of thing "an Amy" is best known for, the way paintings are for Cezanne or types of cars are for Toyota? Does she possess an entire category of husbands who share features that would set them apart from other groups of individuals' husbands? If I just said I had seen "an Amy" or even "a Winehouse", do you assume I saw one of her husbands? Not bloody likely. Though the phrase "Amy husband" might be a grammatically correct structure somewhere, it's usage may still be incorrect in this application — which it is.

    And all that, of course, is aside from your well-taken points that headline writing is often ambiguous by nature and that British culture is daft (at least as much so as the rest of the world) for celebrating drugged out musicians in this way in the first place. That last one might have been all me, actually. ;)

    – dut

  34. Ralph Hickok said,

    July 1, 2008 @ 10:42 pm

    Dan Lewis:
    As you can undoubtedly see by eyeballing your post, "Fielder-Civil" actually takes up a bit less space than "Amy husband." When a headline writer counts characters, "i" and "l" count only 1/2, while "m" and "w" count 1 1/2.

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