A Word on the Words

The Sunday Post (Newcastle) - - HISTORY - By Steve Fi­nan sfi­nan@sun­day­post.com

THE old Si­na­tra song New York, New York popped up on my ra­dio and the lyric: “These vagabond shoes are long­ing to stray” stuck in my head. Po­etry put to mu­sic.

The idea of shoes as vagabonds, that they’d choose to wan­der as va­grants, slightly dis­rep­utable . . . the im­agery is su­perb.

“Vagabond” can be an ad­jec­tive, but these days (it’s a very old word) it is most of­ten a noun.

It got me think­ing about noun ad­juncts – when nouns are used to mod­ify other nouns.

This is com­mon in the English lan­guage: en­gine oil, chicken soup, and sales per­for­mance will all strike you as fa­mil­iar terms.

None of those words are ad­jec­tives. A chicken is, af­ter all, a chicken. Solidly a noun. But it of­fers a de­scrip­tion of the soup and doesn’t sound strange to the ear. Noun ad­juncts can make ex­pres­sive writ­ing.

There is a strange quirk to them, though.

Some­times, it is nec­es­sary to plu­ralise the first noun to get your full mean­ing across. Roads min­is­ter, for in­stance, wouldn’t be right as road min­is­ter. It sounds like he is in charge of one road.

But al­most all noun ad­juncts are in­tended as plu­rals. En­gine oil can be used for more than one en­gine.

It is one of the odd­i­ties of the lan­guage that there isn’t a rule dic­tat­ing when an S must be added to the first noun.

■ Sergey Gor­shkov.

■ Ty­ohar Kastiel.

■ Klaus Nigge.

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