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Five reasons why I love noun pairs

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Asian girl sitting on the floor readingKen Paterson takes a look at noun pairs, ahead of his talk at IATEFL Liverpool on Friday . His talk, ‘EAP power grammar: noun phrases and wh-clauses’ takes place on Friday 12th April from 10:25 – 10:55.

First Reason

They’re easy. When so much else in English grammar offers opportunities for mistakes, noun pairs make life simpler.

Should I say ‘a crisis relating to currency’ or ‘a crisis caused by currency’?

– Why say either when ‘a currency crisis’ will do the job?

Is it ‘products made from plastic’ or ‘products made of plastic’?

– ‘Plastic products’ is probably your answer.

Second reason

They’re hard. (Perhaps, since this is a love story, I should say ‘pleasingly enigmatic’.)

In Practical English Usage, Michael Swan says ‘… this is one of the most difficult areas of English grammar’.

A quick stroll with the grammarians points out some of the problems:

Q: Why can we say ‘history book’ but not ‘moon book’? [Swan]

A: Probably because books about history are more common than books about the moon.

Q: If ‘road signs’ are fine, why not ‘frustration signs’? [Carter and McCarthy]

A: ‘Signs of frustration’ is a much more specific circumstance.

Q: Why ‘heart attack’ (with the major stress on ‘heart’) but ‘glass bottle’? [Biber]

A: The first is a ‘noun compound’, the second a ‘noun + noun sequence’.

But these are finer points. From our students’ point of view, what matters is the usability of the thousands of common head nouns such as ‘car’ (car park, car insurance, car keys) or ‘health’ (health centres, health hazards, health service, health scares).

Third Reason

They’re modest. A lot of grammar goes out of its way to show you how it works:

There are hundreds of small businesses in the area, many of which are interdependent.

But noun pairs hide their grammar:

Shale gas = gas that comes from shale.

Defence systems = systems that are used for defence.

Accounts manager = a manager who is in charge of accounts.

Back pain = pain in the back.

Weekend job = a job that takes place at the weekend.


Fourth Reason

If words are our coinage, then noun pairs are a cheap date.

Why say:

Few measures taken by the government have raised as much opposition from the public as the poll tax of 1989. (20 words)

when you can say:

Few government measures have raised as much public opposition as the poll tax of 1989.

(15 words)

And the FIFTH REASON for this attraction?

These days I live in a small village in the north-west of England. Quite possibly, I just don’t get out enough.

Author: Oxford University Press ELT

The official global blog for Oxford University Press English Language Teaching. Bringing teachers and other ELT professionals top quality resources, tools, hints and tips, news, ideas, insights and discussions to help further their ELT career. Follow Oxford ELT on Twitter. Find Oxford ELT on Google+.

One thought on “Five reasons why I love noun pairs

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