Monday, 7 May 2012

The Natural Order of Things


Nothing but a link today to an excellent article by Tom Chivers in the Telegraph. I wouldn't say that I agree with it all, but I was astonished by this little detail:

The rules of language tend to be unspoken – for instance, I didn't realise that there is a natural order to adjectives, which you will use all the time and possibly never have noticed. (The order is opinion-size-age-shape-colour-origin-material-purpose, so a "beautiful little old round Armenian copper cooking pot", for instance. Try it out of order to see how weird it sounds.)

An imaginary prize will be awarded to anybody who can dream up an elegant exception.

17 comments:

  1. The naming of things usually has origin before anything else e.g. The Norwegian Blue parrot, Leicester Red cheese, the Stewart Island Brown kiwi.

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    1. However, try inserting the word 'beautiful' or 'delicious' after the origin word. See what I mean?

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    2. Well you can't with those as they are the names of the things. You would be saying that the Norwegian Blue parrot was beautiful, not that the parrot was beautiful, blue and Norwegian. If you were adding extra adjectives you could have an azure, Finnish Norwegian Blue parrot but not a Finnish, azure Norwegian Blue parrot.

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    3. I'd like to reply to that but it's so completely nonsensical I feel unable to do so.

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    4. I've only ever heard the cheese referred to as Red Leicester.

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  2. I beg to disagree: a gorgeous antique oblong Iranian silk prayer rug ... origin goes before material + purpose + noun.

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  3. How wonderful, seems to work every time!

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  4. massive majestic princess cut 1920's pink diamond Cartier ring.

    @ this cat... Iranian describes the silk not the rug.

    I have also made this mistake as "princess cut" and "pink" describe the diamond.

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  5. I agree adjectives have to be arranged to make the sentence sound right, but there is no formula that will work every time

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  6. The rule/order is (and has always been) from the general to the specific. That's all...

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  7. I got stalled at the image of a beautiful little old round Armenian copper, cooking pot.

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  8. EndlessWaves8 May 2012 01:36

    Square iron age coins are rare, but not as rare as iron age square coins.

    I think it's just a case of which are more important in the context, historical examples like the above will often put age closer to the noun.

    Or consider cars. If you saw a crime committed and wanted to describe a getaway vehicle that was a green coloured hatchback manufactured by ford. The shape-colour-origin rule given would suggest 'Hatchback Green Ford' but I doubt many of us would use that, instead telling the copper that it was a green ford hatchback getaway car.

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  9. Yes, there is definitely adjectival order pretty much as you describe. It's not an easy thing for students of English to cotton onto (ha). The general rule is that opinion precedes classification.
    (opinion, factual, comparing, classifying, noun)

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  10. Unless you start adding expletives - try "F**king Norwegian f**king Blue f**king parrot f**k." You'd want to add that to the rule somewhere, surely:
    Opinion-expletive-size-expletive-age-expletive-shape and so forth.

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  11. This general rule on the order of adjectives is taught in secondary school in English classes (foreign language class) :)

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  12. Tolkien wrote: "I first tried to write a story when I was about seven. It was about a dragon. I remember nothing about it except a philological fact. My mother said nothing about the dragon, but pointed out that one could not say 'a green great dragon', but had to say 'a great green dragon'. I wondered why, and still do. The fact that I remember this is possibly significant, as I do not think I ever tried to write a story again for many years, and was taken up with language."

    -- J.R.R. Tolkien, from a letter to W.H. Auden (7 June 1955) in which he explains how his tale-telling arose from his philology. Tolkien famously said that he created Middle-earth as a setting for his languages, not vice versa.

    Full acknowledgement to Metafilter.com

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  13. What about "tall, dark and handsome"? :)

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