Let’s talk noun strings!

Posted on January 22, 2024

I’m a French-to-English translator by trade, so I’ve spent years working on improving my grammar and style in my native language. I’m still learning constantly, because to translate well is to write well!

One of the most difficult things about translating from French is making the English sound like English. It’s easy to stick too closely to the French and end up with a noun-heavy translation. This is because, unlike English, which tends to use more verbs, French favours the use of nouns. Let me illustrate:

French: Il a fait la longueur du fleuve Fraser à la nage.
English: He swam the length of the Fraser River.

French: La motion du gouvernement sur l'évaluation des amendements du Sénat est équilibrée.
English: The government motion on assessing the Senate amendments is balanced.

As we can see from the above examples, one way a translator can render French nouns in English is by using verbs or verb forms. However, that’s not always possible. Another way to make the English more idiomatic is to use something called noun strings.

Let’s take a closer look at the second example and identify the series of French nouns:

  • motion du gouvernement
  • amendements du Sénat

Motion du gouvernement” is translated by “government motion” and “amendements du Sénat” is rendered by “Senate amendments.” Both “government motion” and “Senate amendments” are examples of noun strings.

What is a noun string?

A noun string is formed when several nouns are stacked one after the other and function as a whole. In a noun string, all the nouns except the last one act as modifiers: for example, “government motion” (where the noun “government” modifies the noun “motion”). Often, noun strings may contain adjectives as well as nouns: for example, “Olympic sports guide” (where the adjective “Olympic” modifies the noun “sports,” and together they form a noun phrase that modifies the noun “guide”).

English loves noun strings. They’re part of the idiom of the language. Two- or three-word strings are common and easy to understand. However, strings of four or more words can be much more difficult to process.

For example, “federal public service senior management” is a five-word string of nouns and adjectives that readers may find a bit challenging! When you have a very long string like this one, you may have to break it up with prepositions. So “federal public service senior management” can be reworded much more effectively as “senior management within the federal public service.”

What happens when noun strings creep into English translations?

Noun strings can weigh down a text, making it difficult for readers to understand. When you have to read a sentence several times to understand the meaning, it’s a sign that your translation needs to be reworked.

Here’s an example from a recent translation by my colleagues at the Language Portal:

La plume d’or du Blogue Nos langues

And here’s some background for you: the “Blogue Nos Langues” is the title of the blog, and “La plume d’or” is the title of an initiative.

Initially, my co-workers translated with a noun string:

The Our Languages Blog Golden Quill

This translation is quite a mouthful! Also, the reader has to read until the end of the noun string to get to the important information: the Golden Quill.

Recognizing the problem, the team came up with a more reader-friendly solution that doesn’t rely on noun strings:

The Golden Quill: An Initiative of the Our Languages Blog

Knowing that the Golden Quill was an “initiative,” my colleagues were able to incorporate the additional context into their translation.

Here are some more examples of long noun strings and how to get around them:

French: Nous avons lancé un programme de repas santé à l’école afin d’améliorer les choix alimentaires des parents et des enfants.

English with strings: We’ve launched a school-based healthy lunch program to improve parents’ and kids’ food choices.

Improved English: We’ve launched a lunch program in schools to help parents and kids make healthier food choices.

In this example, I’ve broken up the first noun string by adding a preposition (“in”) and moving the idea of “healthy” to the end of the sentence.

French: Nous avons récemment publié le plan de gestion des risques pour la sécurité des déchets des centrales nucléaires.

English with strings: We recently published the nuclear power plant waste security risk management plan.

Improved English: We recently published a plan to manage the security risks associated with nuclear power plant waste.

To get rid of the eight-word noun string, I broke it into two shorter and easier-to-understand strings: “security risks” and “nuclear power plant waste.” (Note: Although “nuclear power plant waste” is a four-word string, it’s easy to understand because “nuclear power plant” is a familiar phrase that functions as a single unit of meaning. So the reader doesn’t have to think about “nuclear power plant” and figure out the relationships between the words.)

What about you?

Do you have any examples of noun strings to share? Comment below with your best brain twister, and I’ll try to unravel it!


The opinions expressed in posts and comments published on the Our Languages blog are solely those of the authors and commenters and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Language Portal of Canada.

Get to know Lindsay Bach

Lindsay Bach

Lindsay Bach

Despite growing up in an Anglophone family in Ontario and Alberta, Lindsay latched onto the French language from an early age. She completed a degree in translation and is now a member of the Language Portal of Canada team. She’s delighted to be spending her days “geeking out” over all things grammar and translation.

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Submitted by Delphine Granger on January 23, 2024, at 11:45

Dear Lindsay, thanks so much for this fascinating "billet".


Submitted by Margaret Black on January 23, 2024, at 16:04

Very interesting article. Thank you! Translation is an art!!!

Submitted by Lindsay Bach on January 25, 2024, at 15:08

I'm glad you enjoyed my post. Translation is indeed an art!

Submitted by Pamela lee on January 23, 2024, at 16:50

This is a great explanation of noun strings. This is an issue that I discuss regularly with students and junior translators, so now I have a great source to refer them to!

Submitted by Stéphanie Symank Boileau on January 23, 2024, at 17:07

I am biligual and have often been called to translate texts in either French or English in my previous jobs. I had not realized that English tends to use more verbs whereas French favours the use of nouns. Your article was very interesting, thanks for sharing!

Submitted by Lindsay Bach on January 25, 2024, at 15:10

As translators, we're always learning. Thank you for reading!

Submitted by Geneviève Hudon on February 5, 2024, at 15:03

Hi Lindsay, great article!