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kottke.org posts about Alexandra Teague

The adjective word order we all follow without realizing it

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 06, 2016

From Mark Forsyth’s The Elements of Eloquence, a reminder of the rules of adjective order that fluent English speakers follow without quite knowing why.

…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.

The Cambridge Dictionary lists a slightly different order: opinion, size, physical quality, shape, age, colour, origin, material, type, purpose. A poem by Alexandra Teague explores the topic in a creative way:

That summer, she had a student who was obsessed
with the order of adjectives. A soldier in the South
Vietnamese army, he had been taken prisoner when

Saigon fell. He wanted to know why the order
could not be altered. The sweltering city streets shook
with rockets and helicopters. The city sweltering

streets.

Did anyone learn this in school? I sure didn’t. How do we all know then? My daughter’s kindergarten teacher had a great phrase she used when things got a bit tricky as her students learned to read: “the English language is a rascal”. (via @MattAndersonBBC)

Update: Language Log’s post on adjective order is worth reading. (thx, stephen & margaret)