WUOMFM

Adjective order: a rule hidden in plain sight

Sep 26, 2016


A few weeks ago, a tweet went viral, because it explained something about adjectives that many people didn’t realize they already knew.

 

Think about how you would describe someone’s eyes.

 

Would you describe them as “blue beautiful big eyes"? Probably not. That sounds weird, right?


You’d probably say “beautiful big blue eyes” without even thinking about what order to put the adjectives in. But why?

 

The answer to that question was the subject of a tweet from the BBC’s Matt Anderson, which cites Matt Forsyth’s book The Elements of Eloquence. 

The grammar tweet heard 'round the world.
Credit Twitter screenshot

For a lot of people, this was a “mind blown” moment, since most of us who grew up speaking English naturally order our adjectives in a certain way without realizing it.

However, Anne Curzan says this rule isn’t quite as hard and fast as the excerpt makes it sound.

“Overall, the rule is generally true. A lot of the time, adjectives do come in that order. But it’s not true to say that if they ever come in a different order, you will sound like a maniac,” she says.

The rule holds up nearly 80% of the time, according to Curzan, but there are definitely exceptions.

Think about the huffing, puffing wolf that terrorized the Three Little Pigs.

If we were to follow the rule and put opinion before size, the character would be called the Bad Big Wolf instead of the Big Bad Wolf.

 

Obviously, that just sounds wrong. Still, the fact that this hidden rule applies to nearly 80% of the things we say is pretty amazing.

Have you ever come across a language rule like this? A rule you’ve been following your whole life without even realizing it? Let us know at acurzan@umich.edu or rkruth@umich.edu.