That rule that you don’t know that you know you know…is not a rule

A couple weeks ago a tweet from Matthew Anderson of the BBC blew up a little bit. The tweet had an excerpt from Mark Forsyth’s book The Elements of Eloquence: Secrets of the Perfect Turn of Phrase. The excerpt asserted that “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.”

The tweet has more than 51,000 retweets and nearly 75,000 likes. It has also spawned articles like the following:

And a bunch more.

This is too credulous. Fortunately, Language Log was asked about the claim and explained how adjective order is not so simple. And many folks have put forth “big bad wolf” (size-opinion) as a clear violation of this so-called rule.

Forsyth responded by saying “big bad wolf” is actually a case of ablaut reduplication (think of words like zig-zag or tick-tock, they are never zag-zig or tock-tick) and, I think, he’s saying that this means it’s not subject to the rule that “adjectives in English absolutely have to be in this order”. If that’s the case, then absolute ≠ absolute.

But even if we let there be an exception for ablaut reduplication and decide that the ‘absolute’ rule for adjective order doesn’t apply in such cases, does the rule hold otherwise?

We can look for evidence.

The Language Log article mentioned above noted several hits in COCA for patterns that don’t fit the rule, including “big ugly”. I got on COCA myself to see what some of the concordance lines looked like, and ran a few other searches as well (other than “big ugly”, in the searches I purposely used words found in the example from the excerpt). Here are a few of the many, many hits that violate the ‘rule’:

Adjective pattern: size-opinion; Search terms: big ugly

  • This is a cute little town with a big ugly fire problem right now
  • On the platform was a big ugly man who talked loud and waved his arms around until his face was red
  • The construction of the big ugly office building was going very well

Adjective pattern: material-origin; Search terms: silver [j*] [nn*]

  • We gave her a small silver Ethiopian cross because we knew she was a devout Catholic

Adjective pattern: color-shape; Search terms: green [j*]

  • Inside the matchbox were nine little green triangular pills
  • One torn green triangular corner of the murdered Slap-of-Wack bar blows across the desert
  • he takes his pass from its slot in the green rectangular pass book before adding his name and time of departure to the long list

Adjective pattern: age-opinion, size-opinion; Search terms: [j*] lovely

  • seemed infinitely more beautiful for the presence of this new lovely white figure in their midst
  • At the doorway to the kitchen stood a tall lovely woman with long black hair and wearing a pink linen dress

None of these constructions sound maniacal.

I think the pattern Forsyth describes is a general preference for order that is usually going to result in good patterning, but it’s definitely not an absolute rule. The rules governing adjective order are messier than that (see the Language Log post). I only felt the need to comment and remark on it because I noticed several ELT-related accounts passing it around and I thought “Really?? Did anyone check the data??” This post doesn’t have anything really in the way of using corpora in the classroom or anything like that, but hopefully it can be a reminder that corpora are excellent reference tools (especially to check sketchy ‘rules’).

**Update**

I realized someone might object to the “silver Ethiopian cross” example since an Ethiopian cross is a particular style of cross. So here’s a different example from COCA that demonstrates the same pattern of material-origin (search terms: wooden [j*] boat):

  • a traditional wooden Bahamian boat hand-built in the early 1960’s
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One thought on “That rule that you don’t know that you know you know…is not a rule

  1. The trouble with the proscriptive, rule-based approach to grammar and usage is that you’re always going to find counterexamples. That’s why I prefer the descriptive approach, which notices, generally speaking, what people do and how they do it. The adjective-order convention is a pattern useful for writing clarity, but many reasons, including the desire to establish a poetic rhythm or a startling stylistic effect, exist to break from it.

    In that regard, what sounds maniacal to the proscriptive BBC editor might sound innovative and clever to the poet. Or it might sound stupid or infantile. Risky business, breaking those patterns, but the rewards are also high.

    The same goes for ablaut reduplication. Imagine, for example, a science-fiction story that begins, “He first noticed that something was horribly wrong when he heard the ‘tock-tick’ of the clock.”

    Like

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