Mind Blown: Order of Adjectives

November 24, 2017

Some things we just know.

We grow up with them, and they become part of how we operate. Sometimes you know they are there (like washing hands before eating), and sometimes we don’t.

Today, I share with you something you do as a native English speaker that you didn’t know you did, but for which there is, indeed, a rule. When I read about it, I had a small *mind blown* moment, and had to share it with you.

I learned about it reading this Guardian article, which was triggered by this tweet, which was a photo of a paragraph from the book The Elements of Eloquence (Amazon).

How do the following feel?

  • Old silly fool
  • My Greek Fat Big Wedding
  • Canvas walking brown boots

They feel *wrong*, don’t they?

That’s because (and here it is:) adjectives in English follow a set pattern. As author Mark Forsyth puts it in The Elements of Eloquence:

“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. And as size comes before colour, green great dragons can’t exist.”

Mind blown.

But wait, you say. What about “big bad wolf”? (Well, I didn’t think that. If you did, points to you.) “Bad” is an opinion. It should come first. The article covers that one as well, with a rule called “ablaut reduplication.” From the article:

“Other examples of the rule in action include chit-chat, singsong, flipflop and hip-hop. When you shift vowel sounds for effect this way, the vowels always follow a specific order: I, then A, then O. You’d think it was more complicated, that it depended on mood or context, but no, it’s that simple – bish bash bosh.”*

Once again, mind blown.

Like I said, just had to share that with you.

*Note: I edited the above quote to be “bish bash bosh,” following the rule given. At the time of writing, if you clicked to the article, they had it as “bosh bash bish,” which runs counter to the point the paragraph is making. I suspect a small error mistake.