Wednesday, September 18, 2019

The grammar rule no one knows but everyone knows

English is a funny language. As author Bill Bryson put in his excellent book "The Mother Tongue," "Any language where the unassuming word fly signifies an annoying insect, a means of travel, and a critical part of a gentleman's apparel is clearly asking to be mangled."

When I was studying French back in high school, I was relieved to learn every expression of affirmation following a statement (termed a "tag question") was a simple, single phrase: "N'est-ce pas?" In English, however, every tag question differs depending on the preceding statement: "Isn't it?" "Aren't you?" "Haven't they?" "Wouldn't it?" "Don't they?" -- and so on through dozens of variations.

This alone must drive non-native English speakers nuts. Imagine trying to teach just the different expressions of affirmation in a classroom setting in, say, China.

Now imagine how comical it sounds to the ears of English-speakers when those tag questions get mangled: "It's a beautiful morning, aren't you?"

Consider another absurd diktat of the English language: ending a sentence with a preposition (in, at, to, for, etc.). Accordingly to Grammarly, "Grammar snobs love to tell anyone who will listen: You should NEVER end a sentence with a preposition! Luckily for those poor, persecuted prepositions, that just isn’t true." -- and goes on to give a few preposition guidelines, often distinguishing between formal and casual statements.

This English decree of never ending a sentence with a preposition is left over from the days when Latin ruled. Latin was considered the purest "and most admirable" language at the time, though imposing Latin rules on English structure "is a little like trying to play baseball in ice skates." Apparently because ending a sentence with a preposition in Latin is impossible, somehow that carried over into English, resulting in the contorted statement famously attributed to Winston Churchill: "This is the kind of thing up with which we shall not put!"

(Incidentally, the same Latin mandate is why it's considered improper to split an infinitive, the most well-known example of which is found in Star Trek's original opening: "To boldly go where no man has gone before." Splitting an infinitive is impossible in Latin, but it's easily done -- or should that be "easily it's done"? -- in English. But I digress.)

One of the reasons English is so odd is because modern English is a mishmash of influences -- notably Old German (and its derivatives) and Latin, but with enormous contributions from French (a Latin derivative), Celtic, and endless other influences. English took on not just vocabulary words from other languages, but also syntax and structure. Today we unthinkingly use words as far-flung as Icelandic ("saga"), Indonesian ("guru"), and Polynesian ("taboo"). Amazing, n'est-ce pas?

Anyway, this little excursion into orthography is to introduce a fascinating article I came across entitled "This is the most bizarre grammar rule you probably never heard of." (Oooh, ending a sentence with a preposition!)

Apparently native English speakers instinctively order their adjectives preceding a noun as follows: opinion-size-age-shape-color-origin-material-purpose-noun:

This blew me away when I read it because it's true. Mess with that order, and you're talking gibberish. (Now imagine trying to teach that tenet in, say, a Chinese classroom!)

Again when I was learning French, there were rules about the grouping of adjectives around a noun. You couldn't say "a pretty yellow dress" ("une jolie jaune robe"), you had to say "a pretty dress yellow" ("une jolie robe jaune"). To native French speakers, it was just the natural way to order adjectives.

I literally never (or should that be "Literally I never") gave this a moment's thought, but the same thing occurs in English. Who knew?

This order of adjectives was spelled out in a book by Mark Forsyth entitled "The Elements of Eloquence." Quoting the article:
"Forsyth says there are eight types of adjectives, which should be used in this order:
      1. Opinion
      2. Size
      3. Age
      4. Shape
      5. Color
      6. Origin
      7. Material
      8. Purpose

But then, the Cambridge Dictionary -- which certainly seems like an authoritative source -- offers a list of ten types of adjectives in a slightly different order:
      1. Opinion
      2. Size
      3. Physical quality
      4. Shape
      5. Age
      6. Color
      7. Origin
      8. Material
      9. Type
      10. Purpose

So, according to Cambridge, it should be a "lovely little rectangular old green French silver whittling knife," which seems completely wrong to me. My instincts say "old" should come before "rectangular," not the other way around. To further complicate matters, Cambridge lists "U-shaped" as an example of type, rather than shape as you might have expected.

In other words, even this supposedly ironclad rule that we all seem to know by instinct is tangled up and subject to debate. And don't even get me started on what to do if you have two adjectives of the same type, say a "lovely valuable little old green French silver whittling knife." Or when and whether you should use a comma, or the word "and."

As someone with an advanced degree in English, an amateur linguist, and a lifelong professional writer, my best advice is this: When it comes to adjective order, you should probably follow your instincts. And you should definitely not have ten, eight, or even four adjectives piled up ahead of a noun. Adding adjectives to your sentences should be like adding spices to your cooking: Use them thoughtfully, sparingly, and when they'll have the most impact. Not only will that make your writing better, it will save you from having to worry so much about putting adjectives in the right order."
Phew. A lot to take in, n'est-ce pas?

The interesting thing about grammar is I don't understand it at all. My eyes glaze over whenever someone delves into its intricacies. I attended high school in the late 70s, when grammar was being phased out in favor of more politically correct subjects, so my grasp is tenuous at best and purely instinctive (instinctual?). I am forever making blunders ... though that hasn't stopped me from becoming a writer.

But I find linguistics and etymology, including the origin of English, fascinating ... even if I do regularly mangle the details. Or regularly do mangle the details. Whatever.


  1. Mercy, my head hurts. Maybe engineering was not such a bad choice.
    Montana Guy

  2. I LOVE this kind of stuff! And, funnily enough, I've been looking for that Churchill quote for a while. Thanks for sharing. If I remember correctly, in Spanish the adjectives come after the noun and have to agree in gender and quantity.

  3. The rule about grammar rules is not to talk about grammar rules...

    1. I hear ya. What happens in grammar class stays in grammar class.
      Montana Guy

  4. Yo Yo Head! You should check your post title: "The grammar rule know one knows but everyone knows"
    Shouldn't it read:"The grammar rule NO one knows but everyone knows"? Like duh?
    Didn't read any more. Especially from someone proclaiming they're an expert in the English language.

    1. Your rite. Thanx four pointing that out in such a swete and jentle manner. I'm sew glad ewe wok on water.

      - Patrice

    2. Patrice, you're so funny. Good for you! I have this thing about bad spelling on the internet. Just no excuse. It irks me so. But you handled my snarkiness well and for that I am grateful. Sometimes I can be so overbearing. Accept my apologies and thank you so much for correcting your title.
      NOW, I can read your very fine post!

    3. It takes a big person to apologize. Thank you.

      - Patrice

  5. Forever burned into my brain in 4th or 5th grade English class:

    Be, am, is, are, was, were, been, being,
    do, does, did,
    have, has, had,
    can, could,
    may, might,
    shall, should,
    will, would,

    I also chose engineering 😊

    Mister Sunbeam

  6. Yes, this comes up rather often when I'm considering some sadly huge over-bloated pear-shaped ancient sand-blasted French crêpe yellow bureaucracy that has erected some sort of political parasol over the body public ...

    It's almost as frequent an occurrence as daring to brazenly split infinitives on the basis that word order is not everything, but it is everything. :-)

  7. Reddit has a "Today I Learned"

    "TIL prescriptivism, which prescribes rigid grammatical rules to written English, only came into favour in the late 1800s. Prior to this most writers were comfortable using multiple spellings and grammatical conventions within a single text."

    This fits as English wasn't a department in universities until the 1880s when American universities moved to the Medieval/German model of the university with the doctorate and as a republic of letter with teaching an oft neglected afterthought from the Scottish model which emphasized teaching and brought us the Scottish Enlightenment. As the old rhetoric teaching was taken over by the new "English" departments it was also given by edict that high school English would be a bad imitation of college English. Good writing was the casualty as well as student interest in classic literature.

  8. If you didn't already know about it you'll love the name of Toppenhow Hill:

  9. "English doesn't just borrow words from other languages, it chases them down dark alleys and mugs them"