In my last post I mentioned that there’s a good reason that the phrase “dark wet stone fragments” makes sense to us, while “stone wet dark fragments” doesn’t; it might sound like modernist poetry, but it doesn’t sound like English. That good reason is found in the Royal Order of Adjectives.
If we learned English as young children, this rule about the way adjectives line up is probably one we never heard described, but we absorbed it nonetheless. In my research I learn that people agree on the hard-and-fast nature of the rule (save for the occasional exception, or course). What surprised me was that not everyone agrees on the actual order, or what to call the categories. The writing blog Daily Writing Tips lists the order this way (with helpful examples):
Observation or opinion (a genuine fraud, an interesting book, an expensive watch)
Size and Shape (tiny, fat, square)
Age (young, old, new)
Color (blue, sea-green)
Origin (American, Chinese)
Material (describing what something is made of: silk, copper, wooden)
Qualifier (final adjective, often an integral part of the noun: vacation resort, wedding dress, race car)
In contrast, a BBC article on the subject gives us the list in a slightly different order, placing shape after age instead of before it:
“Adjectives in English absolutely have to be in this order: opinion-size-age-shape-colour-origin-material-purpose Noun. So you can have a lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife. But if you mess with that word order in the slightest you’ll sound like a maniac. It’s an odd thing that every English speaker uses that list, but almost none of us could write it out.”
I agree with the author about us not being able to write the order out. And perhaps you’ll agree with me that the sentence about the whittling knife is useful for illustration, but is terribly unwieldy–if I’ve got such a knife, it’s quite an imposition to go on at such length in describing it. Just as we naturally tend to understand and obey the order of adjectives, I think we sense when a description has gone on too long.
This handy table groups size, shape, age and color under a physical description heading:
Having seen this ordered list, does it make you want to try it out to see if you can spot an exception? One that was mentioned in the BBC article comes courtesy of a familiar fairy tale. Little Red Riding Hood works just fine (size, color, qualifier, noun), but what about the Big Bad Wolf? If we’re following the royal order it should be the Bad Big Wolf instead. What happened? Well, we’ve run into another of those rules we didn’t know we knew.
This one has got an even more ostentatious name: ablaut reduplication. Reduplication is linguistical-speak for repeating a word with alterations, sometimes in the opening sound (willy nilly), and sometimes in the vowel sound (tick tock). When the vowels are doing the switching, that’s ablaut reduplication. And it turns out there’s a set order for these as well–I goes first, and if there are just two words in the sequence, the second will likely be an A or an O. If there are three words, the order is I, A, O. The I A order gives us Big Bad Wolf.
How does it feel to know things you didn’t know that you knew?And does it make you feel some compassion for adult English language learners? If you’re learning a language other than English, are there word-order rules you’re working on, royal or otherwise? Please share them in the comments.
[Images: Wikipedia, misslucyblog.wordpress.com, martinapelusoillustratrice.blogspot.com]