Wilbers: Unstack your noun stacks to animate your writing

  • Article by: STEPHEN WILBERS
  • Special to the Star Tribune
  • July 14, 2013 - 2:00 PM

I was enjoying a caffe latte at Turtle Bread Company in south Minneapolis when I heard a familiar voice.

“Hi, Doc,” said a young man. He pulled a chair up to my table.

“Remember me?” he said. “A few weeks ago you cured me of saying until such time as and during the course of when I could say until and during. We were at a Minneapolis brew pub location. You conducted a wordiness reduction intervention procedure. Now, thanks to you, I know how to do wordiness elimination in sentences like this one:

“ ‘I deem it desirable that we gather together after our summer school class today to commence work on our homework in a collaborative fashion at our earliest possible convenience so that we might proceed to the lake expeditiously and take part in some ichthyologic recreation.’ ”

“I’m pleased to hear that,” I said, “but how would you condense that sentence?”

“I’d say, ‘Wanna do homework together after summer school today so that we can go fishing?’ ”

“Excellent. Now tell me again where we met.”

“At a Minneapolis brew pub location.”

“Hmmm. And what did we do there?”

“Adjective and adverb examination and elimination exercises.”

“I see.”

“What’s the matter, Doc?” he said in a worried tone. “Am I having a needless modifier relapse experience?”

“No, but you do seem to be suffering from a bad case of noun stacks.”

“Oh, my,” he said. “Is that serious?”

“Possibly,” I said. “We all use noun stacks, as in ‘Are you having pre-departure jitters?’ and ‘Have you ever experienced a parachute deployment malfunction?’ They’re common in technical and scientific language, where they can be handy but inexact, depending on how they’re used. As a rule, if you go beyond two or three nouns in a stack, you’re in trouble.”

“So how am I doing?”

“Well, your phrase wordiness elimination has two nouns, and a Minneapolis brew pub location has four.”


“They’re awkward. If you changed the first one to eliminate wordiness and you dropped the last noun in the second one, you’d be fine. On the other hand, adjective and adverb examination and elimination exercises is a five-noun stack, and it hurts my ear.”

“Can you help me, Doc?” he said. “Is there a noun stack construction elimination cure?”

“Indeed, there is,” I said. “You can unstack those ponderous noun stacks by starting from the last word on the right and reversing the order. As you make your way through the stack, replace nouns with verbs when appropriate and add pronouns and prepositions as needed.”

“Oh, my.”

“Let’s unstack your last noun stack: a noun stack construction elimination cure. Reverse the order and you get a cure to eliminate the construction of stack nouns. If you unstack your noun stacks, you’ll sound like a normal person rather than a figment of my imagination.”

“What’s a figment?”

“I’m not sure,” I said, “but I think it’s a small purple dragon in a yellow sweater. I hear they have one at the Epcot theme park.”

“Good to know,” he said. “Thanks.”

Stephen Wilbers offers training seminars in effective business writing. E-mail him at His website is

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