What It Means to "Stack Words"

stacked modifiers

Katie Edwards/Getty Images

In English grammar, stacking refers to the piling up of modifiers before a noun. Also called stacked modifiers, jammed modifiers, long adjectival phrase, and brick sentence.

Because clarity may be sacrificed for conciseness (as in the first example below), stacked modifiers are often considered a stylistic fault, especially in technical writing. But when used deliberately to create the effect of being overwhelmed (as in the second example), stacking can be an effective technique.

Examples and Observations

  • Ineffective:
    "The board also gave third reading to a Foothills Boulevard Landfill gas emission reduction credits transfer contract authorization bylaw."
    (from the Prince George Citizen [British Columbia], quoted by The New Yorker, June 27, 2011)
  • Effective:
    "If you're unfamiliar with the joy of Ménière's (and I hope you are), imagine a floor-warping, ceiling-spinning, brain-churning, think-you're-gonna-die-and-afraid-you-might-not hangover and multiply that times the aftermath of a power outage at the all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet. That's Ménière's."
    (Kristin Chenoweth, A Little Bit Wicked: Life, Love, and Faith in Stages. Touchstone, 2009)

Varieties of Stacked Phrases

Stacked phrases range all the way from supposedly simple combinations like "the then district attorney" to complex combinations like "the Halloween-night multiple-gunshot killing of a 30-year-old woman."

The "then district attorney" is presumably a person who was district attorney at that time, and the murder must have occurred on Halloween night when someone shot a 30-year-old woman several times.

Newswriters who adopt this technique sacrifice clarity and may not save time. . . . Concise prepositional phrases and subordinate clauses are usually more neutral.
(R.K. Ravindran, Handbook of Radio, TV and Broadcast Journalism. Anmol, 2007)

Using Short Words to Break up Word Strings

"Nouns can legitimately modify other nouns but long strings of modifiers (nouns, or nouns and adjectives) are often difficult to understand. Non-specialists may find phrases such as:

a steroid-induced GABA channel burst duration prolongation

completely impenetrable. Insert verbs or prepositions between groups of three (or at most four) nouns, or nouns plus adjectives, as in:

a steroid-induced prolongation of the burst duration of GABA-activated channels.

In sentences with too many abstract nouns, 'of' and 'the' may be redundant . . . but in word strings, you may need to insert these short words to make your writing clearer and more precise."
(Maeve O'Connor, Writing Successfully in Science. E & FN Spon, 1991)

Unstacking for Clarity

Stacked modifiers are strings of modifiers preceding nouns that make writing unclear and difficult to read.

Your staffing-level authorization reassessment plan should result in a major improvement.

The noun plan is preceded by three long modifiers, a string that forces the reader to slow down to interpret its meaning. Stacked modifiers are often the result of an overuse of buzzwords or jargon. See how breaking up the stacked modifiers makes the example easier to read:

Your plan for reassessing the staffing-level authorizations should result in a major improvement.

(Gerald J. Alred, Charles T. Brusaw, and Walter E. Oliu, Handbook of Technical Writing. Bedford/St. Martin's, 2006)


Be careful of stacked modifiers (adjectives and adverbs). . . . Be especially careful of cases in which the first descriptor could modify either the second descriptor or the noun. For example, what exactly is a "buried cable engineer"? (And how does one breathe?)
(Edmond H. Weiss, 100 Writing Remedies. Greenwood, 1990)

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "What It Means to "Stack Words"." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, thoughtco.com/stacking-words-1692132. Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 26). What It Means to "Stack Words". Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/stacking-words-1692132 Nordquist, Richard. "What It Means to "Stack Words"." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/stacking-words-1692132 (accessed June 5, 2023).