On the Ordering of Nouns in Writing

Effective writing is important, or you won’t be understood and achieve your goal. An example is to get the ordering of nouns (or adjectives) in enumerations right. Let’s pick an example: In software engineering, a software feature’s implementation should be correct, complete, and testable. So a project goal could be “to ensure correctness, completeness, and testability of feature implementations.”

The following rules apply:

  1. Keep the order the same when repeating
  2. Order by increasing dependence of noun
  3. Order by decreasing significance of noun

Under most circumstances, the enumeration serves as a single semantic chunk (logical unit) and you want the reader to take it as that. Therefore rule #1 applies: Never change the order of nouns unless you have a specific reason to. By not changing the order you support the recognition of the enumeration as one semantic chunk and thereby (a) make your point and (b) reduce the cognitive burden on the reader.

When ordering nouns, you typically want to avoid forward references. Hence, rule #2: You should put those nouns first which don’t depend on others. In the example, correctness and completeness are independent criteria, but testability is affected by correctness and completeness and therefore should come after them in the enumeration.

There are different types of dependence: Functional, temporal, financial, etc. For example, when enumerating software engineering activities, you should write “requirements analysis, software design, and testing” rather than “testing, requirements analysis, and software design”. Here, the dominant dependency is a temporal one.

Rule #2 may not lead to a complete global order, so we have rule #3: You should fix the remaining ordering issues by putting more significant nouns first. Hence, I write “correctness and completeness” rather than “completeness and correctness”. If unsure, you can always use a search engine to determine the more dominant use (“correctness and completeness” has 600K results and “completeness and correctness” has 400K results; oh well).

Of course, there are no rules without exception. For example, if you have a specific purpose for choosing a different order, you should do so. The most common specific purpose I can think of is that contrary to the default ordering, you may want to emphasize a particular noun, and therefore pull it forward into first place.

Finally, these ordering rules apply not only to words, but to figures and document structures. Anything that deviates from the established order triggers a reader’s brain, making them wonder whether they are missing something and eventually making them fret about inconsistency of presentation, at a minimum.

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