Electronic(s) N

Heard on KQED this morning, a report of electronic debris on a local freeway, posing a danger to drivers; a television set was specifically mentioned.

Electronic debris is an Adj + N composite with a “pseudo-adjective” electronic — an Adj that is understood via a nominal referent, in this case the N electronics. (Some discussion of pseudo-adjectives as a species of non-predicating modification here.) Then it turns out that there are two sets of electronic N nominals, evoking two different senses of electronics, and also that the compound electronics N (with a plural first element) is available as an alternative to some of the electronic N cases.

As background, NOAD2 on electronics:

plural noun [usu. treated as sing. ]
the branch of physics and technology concerned with the design of circuits using transistors and microchips, and with the behavior and movement of electrons in a semiconductor, conductor, vacuum, or gas : electronics is seen as a growth industry | [as adj. [AMZ: that is, as a N used as modifier]] electronics engineers.
• [treated as pl. ] circuits or devices using transistors, microchips, and other components.

Two senses here:

(1) (usu. sg) a branch of physics and technology (Electronics fascinates meI’m majoring in electronics);

(2) (pl) circuits or devices (Electronics litter the highwayOur store sells electronics).

The pseudo-adjective electronic can evoke either sense. In electronic debris, it’s the second sense: electronic devices (like tv sets) were littering the freeway this morning. But in electronic physics, it’s the first.

A cite (from among a fair number) for electronic debris:

Communities rally to recycle electronic debris

One of the world’s fastest-growing environmental problems is also a prime driver of the world economy: electronics.

Electronic waste — in the form of discarded computers, cell phones, TVs, VCRs, fluorescent bulbs and other products — contains toxic substances such as lead and mercury. Some officials worry that despite strong liners under landfills, pollutants from electronics could leak into groundwater and streams. (link)

(Note electronic waste ‘waste composed of electronics’ in the text.)

Electronics debris would in principle be possible, but it seems to be exceedingly rare. In comparison, there are a fair number of cites for electronics waste, for instance:

How do I recycle electronics waste? (link)

In this case, recycle electronic waste wins over recycle electronics waste handily in raw ghits (272,000 to 47,900: ratio of 5.7).

The pattern is reversed for electronic recycling vs. electronics recycling, where electronics dominates electronic (2,010,000 to 762,000: ratio of 2.6). One cite for each:

All Green Electronics Recycling is excited to announce that we’ve teamed up with 8 News Now, Cintas, RC Willey, and the Thomas and Mack Center to host a Super Saturday Recycling Event in Las Vegas. (link)

Ground-breaking electronic recycling system (link)

but the latter site is entitled:

Welcome to the Electronics Recycling Team of Experts!

(with electronics). It also includes an instance of electronic device:

The Information Age has created a virtual tidal wave of electronic devices – including computers and monitors that become obsolete or wear out at an ever-increasing rate.

That is, devices incorporating electronics. Electronics device would in principle be possible, but is virtually non-existent, and that’s true for particular types of devices: electronic calculator, electronic gadget, electronic book, etc., all with the Adj electronic rather than the N electronics.

No doubt there’s more complexity to be found here. The general picture is that for certain head Ns, the composite virtually requires an Adj (electronic device, electronic debris), while for others, there’s an alternation between Adj and N modifiers, sometimes with Adj preferred (electronic waste), sometimes with N preferred (electronics recycling).

Apparently, the electronic debris has now been cleared from the freeway.

4 Responses to “Electronic(s) N”

  1. Sergey Larin Says:

    I like the way you explain and the theme (pseudo-adjectives). I`ve been intuitively searching for it for years. Now I know the terms for such words as those used in phrases where there are nouns following one another.Oh, thanks)

  2. Victor Steinbok Says:

    I wonder if you’re overstating just how rare “electronics debris” is. I leafed through 10 pages of Google results for {“electronics debris”} and found probably about 8-10% of the hits to be non-spurious (most of the rest are lists of things that include “electronics” and “debris”). Presumably, some of those are off as well (the first two page are full of hits that have the string “competition electronics debris shield”, which may well be interpreted as a competition in electronics where one is to design a debris shield) and there are only about 900 raw ghits so the actual number is not large, but it’s not single digits either.

    But consider “math” (US) vs. “maths” (UK) and try to search for {“maths problem”}. The majority of the ghits will not have “maths” in them, but will have “math” instead–not the case when using “electronics”. Of the rest, nearly all with refer to “maths problem solving”, which roughly translates as “problem-solving techniques/teaching in school mathematics”. Still, there is a considerable number of hits for “maths problem” and “maths problem solving”, just as there are for their cousins without the -s. I suppose, you may end up judging this irrelevant to the electronic/electronics case.

    But look back at “electronics recycling”. There may be a very good reason for the N preference here when the intended meaning is “recycling of electronic devices”. The reason? “Electronic recycling” means something entirely different–“recycling facilitated by an electronic device”. So it’s an exception that proves the rule–the adjectival meaning is so dominant that it cannot apply to the secondary case and requires an N-N compound.

    But this is not the case with “electronics faculty”, where the reference is obviously to instructors of electronics (1). Still, perhaps “electronic faculty” may represent instructors produced by means of incorporating artificial intelligence into electronic devices. Hmm… I small a pattern here.

    What about “electronic/s fair”? “electronic/s factory”? “electronic/s removal”? Don’t they seem to be perfectly predictable because the alternative meaning is blocked?

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      “Competition electronics debris shield” is actually “Competition Electronics debris shield” — a debris shield (shield against debris) made by the Competition Electronics company.

      • Victor Steinbok Says:

        This does not surprise, but I did state that my assumption was that this was a part of the “spurious” list. I probably should have checked the specifics, but I’d just assumed it wasn’t relevant and moved on.

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