136. Types of Description by Nouns



A noun will describe another noun in at least one of numerous possible ways


It is quite common in English to find a noun placed just before another noun in order to “describe” it like an adjective. Such nouns differ from adjectives in also being able to go after the other noun with a preposition in between, without affecting the meaning. For example, police in the phrase a police notice can make the phrase a notice by (or from or even about) the police. Adjectives, by contrast, cannot be repositioned like this: the adjective-noun phrase an important notice can only be reordered by adding that is in between, rather than a preposition (see 38. Nouns Used like Adjectives).

The preposition that is needed after reversing the order of the two partner nouns indicates the particular type of description that is present. Its choice is based on nothing other than logical deduction from the meanings of the two nouns, rather as inter-sentence meaning is identifiable just from the meanings of two neighbouring sentences (see 18. Relations between Sentences). A surprisingly wide variety of prepositions is found when different pairs of nouns are reversed. In this post I wish to illustrate this variety, and to identify some major categories into which the examples seem to fall.



Numerous different prepositions are needed to paraphrase even a small sample of adjective-like nouns. Coffee cups, for example, becomes cups for coffee, whereas The Nile Delta means the Delta of the Nile. However, simply using prepositions to show the different types of description by nouns gives a problem: single prepositions do not always mean the same thing. For example, The Nile Delta and water management are both paraphrased with of (the Delta of the Nile and management of water), but of is understood very differently.

Much more helpful is to ask what exactly the preposition means in each case. Thus, for in cups for coffee means “for the purpose of” – in other words, it signals a “function” (as defined in the Guinlist post 119. BE before a “to” Verb). Analysing of, we see that Delta is a part of The Nile, but water is the object of management (see 160. Uses of “of”).



The types of description that can be expressed with adjective-like nouns are similar to, but not the same as, the types of meaning expressible with possessive nouns (see 58. Optional Apostrophe Endings). This is hardly surprising given the frequency with which adjective-like nouns can replace possessive ones without much change of meaning.

Readers might be interested, before seeing a list of description types, to try and predict them from some random examples of nouns describing other nouns. Which preposition meanings are illustrated in the following?

a mathematics workshop, water management, the greenhouse effect, the London Underground, Pineapple Studios, customer accounts, rain drops, the flu virus, an ocean current, BBC programmes, electricity generation, a table leg, weekend work, a research method, a chocolate soufflé, sun rays, computing equipment, a 1000-word essay, criminal activity, a summer school, bank accounts, road works, market forces, an admissions policy, the Education Department, a Beatle haircut, weather conditions.

The meanings illustrated by this list are as follows. Others probably exist too.

1. Function

Besides coffee cups, examples are a research method, computing equipment, an admissions policy, citation verbs and a bicycle chain. This last could also go under “component holder” (see below) if the chain is actually on a bicycle.


2. Location

The London Underground means “the Underground in London” – obviously a statement about “where” the Underground is located. This meaning is likely to exist in most phrases whose first noun is a place name with a capital letter (numerous examples are in the post 47. Article Errors with Proper Nouns), and in many other phrases too. Further examples are The New York Times, The Amazon Rain Forest, ocean currents, a university library and a street party.

Sometimes a place adjective is preferred to a noun, for example when naming a country or continent (The French Riviera, Asian countries). Note also that place nouns without a capital letter can often be classified in a different way. For instance, if library books are not actually in a library, they are likely to be from one (see “source” below). Other ambiguous examples are bank accounts, BBC programmes, market forces and road works.


3. Time When

The first noun here will represent a point or period in time, e.g. a summer school and weekend work above. Relevant prepositions are in, at or on. Other examples are a day job, a December edition, twentieth-century wars, the midday sun and Sunday traffic.


4. Measurement

A 1000-word essay illustrates this category. The paraphrasing preposition is usually of or with. A number before the first noun seems necessary. Other examples are a two-hour meeting, a 30-cm ruler, 100-degree temperatures, a five-litre flask and a four-door saloon.

If the first noun is a time expression without a number word, a possessive noun seems more likely (an hour’s delay, a moment’s hesitation).


5. Source

The relevant preposition here is from (sometimes by – see 49. Prepositions after Action Nouns 2). Illustrative phrases above are BBC programmes, sun rays and market forces; the first nouns all show where the things represented by the second nouns come from. There is a similarity to the meaning of “actor” (see below). The difference is that actors go with second nouns expressing actions, like movement and activity, rather than people or things (for more about “action” nouns, see 131. Uses of “Action” Nouns).

Other examples with the “source” meaning include government policies, Tata Steel, Picasso paintings, media voices and (sometimes) library books. However, not all sources are expressed with an adjectival noun. Individual people’s names are often possessive (Down’s Syndrome, Halley’s Comet, Pythagoras’s Theorem), while elsewhere adjectives seem preferred if they exist (French wines, national sentiment).


6. Actor

The paraphrasing preposition here is by. As mentioned above, the second noun must be of the “action” kind. If it was changed into the corresponding verb, the first noun would be its subject. This is the case above with criminal activity. Similar phrases are newspaper reaction, manufacturer advice, child development, consumer preferences and water outflows.


7. Object

Sometimes, when the second noun is of the “action” kind, the first noun will be affected by the action rather than initiating it. In other words, if the second noun had been a verb, the adjective-like one would have been its grammatical object. Examples from the list above are water management, electricity generation and possibly road works.

Object-naming first nouns seem particularly to have “generic” meaning – not linked to a particular time (see 89. Using “the” with General Meaning). For example water management indicates water in general. With particular water, we might instead use of (see 31. Prepositions after Action Nouns 1) or an apostrophe ending (the water’s management – see 58. Optional Apostrophe Endings).

Object-naming first nouns can accompany not just action nouns but also people types who perform particular actions, as in car owners, cabinet maker, film director and football supporter. Again, generic meaning seems normal – though non-generic may be possible too (the car owner = the car’s owner).


8. Component Holder

After a noun with this meaning, the relevant component is named. Examples above are The Nile Delta and a table leg. Ocean currents and a bicycle chain could be too, if not classified elsewhere. The associated preposition is usually of, sometimes in. Other examples are car parts, dictionary entries, grammar rules and team members.


9. Component

Here the component precedes its owner, with no hint of function or focus. The example in the list above is chocolate soufflé. The associated preposition is with. Other examples are colour photographs, salt solutions and flatscreen TVs.


10. Characteristic Holder

The second noun here is a situation or property of the first. It is illustrated above by weather conditions, the associated preposition being of. Further examples are sea temperature, adrenaline levels, brain disease and object size. For more advice on writing about properties, see 163. Ways of Naming Properties.


11. Focus

This kind of first noun shows the topic or purpose of what follows it. Typical prepositions are on or about. Examples above are a mathematics workshop and the Education Department. Other examples are a sugar tax, usage statistics, water engineers, phrase books and a literature essay.


12. Material

Here, the second noun names an object, and the first says what it is made of, e.g. rain drops above. No other material must be present in the object; otherwise the relation is “component” instead (#9 above). The preposition is of. Other examples are a plastic pipe, slate rooves, ice cubes and vocabulary items.

The last two of these enable uncountable nouns (ice, vocabulary) to be spoken about as if they were countable. Their alternative renderings cubes of ice and items of vocabulary belong with familiar combinations like loaves of bread and pieces of advice, many of which cannot become paired nouns. There are also some paired nouns of this kind, e.g. an email message and a punctuation mark, that cannot be paraphrased with a preposition (see 180. Nouns that Count the Uncountable).


13. Cause/Effect

The first noun names a cause or effect of what the second represents. In the flu virus above, flu is an effect, but in the refugee problem, refugee is a cause. The associated preposition is of.


14. Name

This category is illustrated above by Pineapple Studios. The first noun is nothing more than a name – its meaning does not define the other noun in any other way. If the two nouns are reversed, one might add named after (named for in American English). Other examples are The Apollo Theatre and The Eiffel Tower.


15. Comparison

This meaning is illustrated above by the greenhouse effect (“the effect like that of greenhouses”) and a Beatle haircut (“a haircut like that of the Beatles”). The relevant preposition is like. Other examples are wrestler arms, butterfly stitches, boxer shorts, demon drivers, dagger looks and Table Mountain.


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