Friday, December 31, 2004

Com-pound it!

"Compound noun" is a self-executing construction; like "oxymoron" or "a little alliteration," it is what it says it is. But when did it become the rage?

A tug of war goes on in language between logic (saying exactly what you mean) and gracefulness (saying it with style). I fear that gracefulness is losing.

Compound nouns are clunky and graceless. Any good grammar book counsels their judicious use--especially when it comes to a lot of them in a row.

Compound Noun Phrases

Avoid long strings of noun that may be unfamiliar to the reader. Break up the string by using prepositional phrases or infinitives.

The plant safety standards committee discussed recent air quality regulation announcements.

Revised. The committee for regulating safety standards discussed announcements about regulation of air quality.

Long noun phrases are the worst offenders, but lesser offenses abound.

Remember "Legal Departments"? One day sometime during the Reagan administration, someone noticed a logical flaw. Legal Departments were not necessarily "legal." All kinds of activity might be authorized or condoned by corporate lawyers. Hence the birth of the "Law Department."

Scientific issues are now science issues.

Ethical dilemmas are now ethics dilemmas.

Logical fallacies are now logic fallacies.

Logistical problems are now logistics problems.

Our Environmental Protection Agency was founded in 1970, before this nonsense started, but in Australia, an agency founded more recently is called the Environment Protection Authority.

On September 11, 2001, I thought we experienced terrorist attacks, but the media called them terror attacks.

Sometimes this new habit turns something logical into something illogical. How many deserted islands are actually deserts? Yet "deserted island" is now interchangeable with "desert island." At least one careful writer knows the difference.

Maybe I'm too fussy. Maybe these coinages make perfect sense in the natural progression of our utilitarian native tongue. But it sure is hard to come across phrases like this (from a review of Tom Wolfe's new novel):

I Am Charlotte Simmons, however, has not invited Dickens comparisons.

Is that not the cake-taker? What would Dickens think? You know, Dickens: author of A Two-Cities Tale.

UPDATE: I stand corrected by language hat on "desert" v. "deserted." It seems that in ancient times, "desert" was an adjective. I knew that adjectival and adverbial endings in English were often latecomers, so that (as language hat points out) "slow" is as good as "slowly" (the -ly coming from "lich," which means "like," in other words "slow-like" or, like (you know), slow), but this one was news to me. Still, I don't really think that people who say "desert island" are consciously tapping into 13th c. English. It's nice that what goes around has come around I guess, but I think the reason has to do with this weird fad favoring compound nouns.

UPDATE 2: Correcting myself this time. I did a couple of word searches, hoping to find it verified that "desert island" went into hibernation sometime around the 17th c. only to come out in the past twenty years. Not so! Since 1980 in the New York Times "desert island" has run well ahead of "deserted island" (even subtracting the "Mount Desert Islands"--I've always wondered about how that name came about). More to the point, "desert island" turns up twice in 19th c. manuscripts in the holdings of Documenting the American South. So it looks as if this is a relic, a phrase that refused to modernize. Thanks again language hat for sending me on this expedition.

UPDATE 3: I rest my case.

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