Wilbers: Verbs can help you unstack awkward noun stacks

  • Article by: STEPHEN WILBERS , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 27, 2011 - 9:27 PM

I was raking leaves in my back yard on a lovely fall day, lost in the swish and crinkle of childhood memories, when a familiar voice intruded on my thoughts.

"Hey, Doc, remember me?"

It was a man in a blaze orange hunting cap inscribed with the words, "Don't Shoot Idiot."

"You're missing a comma," I said, turning back to my leaves.

"I am?" he said. "Where?"

"Before the form of direct address, Idiot. If you want to refer to me as an idiot, use a comma. If you want to refer to yourself as an idiot, leave it out."

"Oh, yeah," he said, "I remember something on the Internet about a missing comma in 'Let's eat Grandma,' but I didn't see the problem."

"Well, then, I feel sorry for your grandma."

"Whatever you say, Doc. So I wanted to thank you for helping me achieve dangling modifier and noun stack tendency elimination. Having dangled my modifiers for years, you taught me how to avoid that error."

"Well, you just dangled one," I said. "To connect the modifying phrase to the main clause of your sentence, you should have said, 'Having dangled my modifiers for years, I no longer make that error.' A modifying phrase should be followed by the person or thing it modifies. After Having dangled my modifiers for years, the next word should be I, not you, because you're the person who dangled his modifiers, not me."

"Sorry, Doc. I must have had a relapse experience."

"As for your nouns, you're still stacking them. Do you remember what I told you about noun stacks?"

"Wait, wait, don't tell me," he said. "Noun stacks should be avoided because they're awkward."


"And to unstack a noun stack, you start from the last word in the stack, or the right side of the phrase, and you reverse the order, turning nouns into verbs as appropriate."

"Exactly. So how would you unstack a relapse experience?"

"I would experience a relapse."

"Precisely. And how about dangling modifier and noun stack tendency elimination?"

"I would eliminate my tendency to stack my nouns and dangle my modifiers."

"Well done. Now, would you mind taking off your hat?"

"Doc, please. It's embarrassing."

"Come on. Let's have a look."

He lifted his hat. Sprouting from his head like caribou horns were dozens of noun stacks.

"Just as I suspected," I said, pulling on my latex gloves and snapping one off. "They keep growing back. I removed this one from your head a couple of years ago. Unstack an acquisition candidate identification process."

"A process for identifying candidates for acquisition?"

"Good," I said. I tugged at another, but it wouldn't come loose. Then I remembered they were easier to remove if you soaked them first.

"Wait here," I said. I fetched my cup of coffee from the stone wall and poured it over his head.

"Sit down and relax," I said. "We'll get the rest of them after I finish raking my leaves."

Stephen Wilbers offers training seminars in effective business writing. E-mail him at wilbe004@umn.edu. His website is www.wilbers.com.

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