When I mark my students’ writing I divide common mistakes into categories, and this ‘Nouns as adjectives’ section was getting longer and longer.
I couldn’t work out exactly what was causing the errors, so I did some research.
The more I researched, the more confused I got with all the terminology, but in this lesson, I will try to clarify the rules and give you ONE quick tip that will fix (almost) everything!
Most of the time, these language items are so common and familiar that you don’t need to think about the rules e.g. toothpaste, football, town centre, car park, dog food, shoe shop.
But sometimes they cause problems, as you can see below.
To get more information, you can google:
- nouns that act like adjectives
- noun-like adjectives
- nouns as adjectives
- attributive nouns
- noun modifiers
- adjectival nouns
- compound nouns
Also see my previous lesson relating to hyphens in compound nouns.
Problems with nouns as adjectives
Look at the list of errors below. Can you see what the main problem is?
- There are different categories of movies’ genres.
- Factories’ waste should be subject to stricter measures.
- The noodles discs are dried.
- This will reduce human’s diseases.
- A drop in tourist’s rates.
- Many company’s managers are often criticized for their high salary.
- If the compensation’s gap is reduced they might have less of a sense of unfairness.
- More governments’ investment is needed.
- A flowers’ garden has been built.
- Solving world’s hunger is a priority.
- Genetic’s scientists were able to modify the genes.
- Vehicles horns create disturbance.
- I found it in an antiques’ shop
- There are different categories of movie genres.
- Factory waste should be subject to stricter measures.
- The noodle discs are dried.
- This will reduce human diseases.
- A drop in tourist rates.
- Many company managers are often criticized for their high salary.
- If the compensation gap is reduced they might have less of a sense of unfairness.
- More governments investment is needed.
- A flower garden has been built.
- Solving world hunger is a priority.
- Genetic scientists were able to modify the genes.
- Vehicle horns create disturbance.
- I found this watch in an antique shop.
So what is the simple tip?
When you use nouns as adjectives, don’t put ‘s’ on the noun before the noun!
The ‘normal’ adjective rules are very simple.
Adjectives describe nouns, for example
- a nice day
- beautiful weather
- a hot cup of tea
- a sunny beach
But nouns describe nouns too.
Unlike normal adjectives, these ‘nouns as adjectives’ can go:
BEFORE the noun e.g. heart disease
AFTER the noun (with a preposition) e.g. disease OF the heart
Like ‘normal’ adjectives, these ‘noun-like adjectives’ do not need any kind of ‘s’ (plural or possessive).
A soup made of carrots = carrot soup
carrots soup carrot’s soup carrots’ soup
A park for cars = a car park
a cars park a car’s park a cars’ park
Prepositions: ‘in’ ‘of’ and ‘for’
Let’s look at the 3 most common prepositions that ‘create’ noun-like adjectives ‘in’ ‘of’ and ‘for’.
- A road in the country = a country road
- A party in the street = a street party
- The Underground in London = the London Underground
- Currents in the ocean = ocean currents
- An account in a bank = a bank account
- The centre of town = the town centre
- The church of the village = the village church
- the floor of the kitchen = the kitchen floor
- The pocket of my coat = my coat pocket
- The door of the car = the car door
- The management of water = water management
- The temperature of the sea = sea temperature
- The Department of Education = the Education Department
- A book of grammar = a grammar book
- A tax of sugar = a sugar tax
- Forces of the market = market forces
- A member of a team = a team member
- A teacher of English = an English teacher
- The wealth of the world = world wealth
- The crisis of refugees = The refugee crisis
(= for the purpose of)
- Shoes for running = running shoes
- A shop for shoes = a shoe shop
- A cup for tea = tea cup
- A room for beds = a bedroom
- Food for dogs = dog food
- A chain for a bicycle = a bicycle chain
from (= source)
- Books from a library = library books
- Paintings from/of/by Picasso = Picasso paintings
- Work at the weekend = weekend work
- School in the summer = summer school
- School on Sunday = Sunday school
- Damage by water = water damage
- Erosion by soil = soil erosion
- Purchases by consumers = consumer purchases
- Activity by criminals = criminal activity
- A magazine about movies = a movie magazine
Measurements and materials
We saw examples of measurements in my previous blog about hyphens e.g.
- over 10 years = over a 10-year period
- A journey which takes 3 hours = a 3-hour journey
- An essay of 250 words = a 250-word essay
- He’s 4 years old./ He’s a 4-year-old boy.
- This house has 2 bedrooms./ This is a 2-bedroom house.
Time nouns after ‘a/an’ need ‘s’ – an hour’s delay, a moment’s hesitation
- 3 days’ wait/ a 3-day wait
The examples relating to materials are well-known e.g
- a cube made of ice = ice cube
- a cup made of plastic = a plastic cup
- a wall made of bricks = a brick wall
Nouns ending in ‘-er/-or’ and ‘ing’
- Someone who owns cars = a car owner
- Someone who manufactures cars = a car manufacturer
- Someone who directs films = a film director
- Something to peel potatoes = a potato peeler
- a list for shopping = a shopping list
- a pool for swimming = a swimming pool
- a machine for washing = a washing machine
- a stick for walking = a walking stick
- a holiday for walking = a walking holiday
Exceptions and alternatives
In the ‘nouns as adjectives’ list of errors above, we saw that you do NOT need any kind of ‘s’ (no possessive ‘s’ or plural ‘s’).
However, there are some exceptions.
Plural ‘s’ is used in these examples:
- a clothes shop
- the ladies room
- a sports car
- the arms race
- a singles bar
- a news editor
- an admissions policy,
- a maths lesson (U.S. – Math lesson)
- sales figures
- materials design
- customs officers
Possessive ‘s’ is used with these irregular plurals:
- children’s literature
- women’s rights
Possessive ‘s’ is also correct in these examples (both options are correct):
- a summer day = a summer‘s day
- The rays of the sun = the sun‘s rays
- The milk of cows = cows’ milk
- A day for Mothers = Mothers’ Day
- Shakespeare plays = Shakespeare‘s plays
- The influence of television = television‘s influence
- The government’s policy (‘government’ is a noun here, so we need possessive ‘s’ = of the government)
- Government policy (‘government’ is an adjective here, so no possessive ‘s’ is required)
- Water management (general)
- The management of water (specific)
Many nouns are also adjectives e.g.
human, chemical, adult, alternative, classic, individual, minimum, transport, professional, male, female, animal, wildlife.
Other mistakes that occur, often in Speaking, are:
- Advice about health = health advice (not
- A course about photography = a photography course (not
‘Hanging hyphens’ – don’t do this
If you just take away one thing from this lesson, it is that you should think twice about using an ‘s’ on words that describe nouns.
Keep it simple and drop the ‘s’.
If you’d like to look at the topic in more depth, I found this GUINLIST blog immensely useful and I am indebted to Paul Fanning for helping me understand the issues and for his excellent examples.
Find a simple but useful British Council guide to noun modifiers here.
This EnglishClub blog also has a simple list.
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