or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Monday, July 28, 2008

Compounding The Error

English is full of traps big and small for the unwary writer, and one of them is the compound noun.

A compound noun is one which is made of two (or more) words; they can be practically any part of speech, but once they're joined, they become a noun. They can be fused together ("hairbrush", two nouns) or connected by a hyphen ("thank-you", a verb and a pronoun), or left as two separate pieces ("night light", two nouns).

It is this last instance that causes so much trouble. If you've constructed a sentence so that you have two words in succession that look as if they can be a compound noun, but aren't, then you've introduced needless ambiguity and therefore confusion into your writing.

Here's the very first sentence from the Salon.com review of the new X-Files movie:

July 25, 2008 | It's hard to say if "The X-Files: I Want to Believe" is exactly the movie fans of the revered series -- which aired from 1993 to 2002 -- are hoping for.

To make it worse, the words "movie fans" are linked to another Salon article, just as you see them here, which means they're grouped by underlining and by being a different colour, so it looks exactly as if they're intended to form a compound noun. But they clearly don't; if you mentally insert the word "that" between "movie" and "fans", you get the real meaning of the sentence.

And that's the key to resolving the problem when you have an illusory two-noun compound. Short of rewriting the sentence, which is sometimes the best solution, the conjunction "that" (or, less commonly, "which") will nearly always fix it.

Back in my university days when I worked with the student newspaper, the Canadian University Press stylebook decreed that the word "that" ought to be deleted wherever possible, such as in this very sentence (after the word "decreed"). I hated this and resisted it as much as possible, because I thought it often sounded clumsy and sometimes made sentences less clear than they ought to be. I still think so. There are many instances in which the word can be deleted; but there are as many in which it refines and clarifies a sentence. The Salon lead is one of them.


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