Three Grammar Rules We Know but Don’t Know We Know #amwriting

In English, as in other languages, certain rules of speech are learned so early on in life that they are instinctual. No matter the level of our education or the dialect we speak, we use these rules and don’t know we are doing so.

to err is human to edit divineToday I am revisiting three wonderful quotes on these rules from linguist Steven Pinkereditor Stan Carey, and Tim Dowling, a journalist for The Guardian.

The Jolly Green Giant rule:

The rule is that multiple adjectives are always ranked accordingly: opinion, size, age, shape, colour, origin, material, purpose. Unlike many laws of grammar or syntax, this one is virtually inviolable, even in informal speech. You simply can’t say My Greek Fat Big Wedding, or leather walking brown boots. And yet until last week, I had no idea such a rule existed. Tim Dowling, for The Guardian, Sept 13, 2016. [1]

My editor often finds and points out words whose order must be rearranged to sound natural. Inadvertently putting our words in the wrong order is why some sentences seem clumsy when you read them. The author wrote them that way when they were in the middle of laying down the first draft of the manuscript and didn’t notice it during the revision process.

It happens because, in the first draft, we are madly getting the words out of our heads. In the rush to get the thoughts down, words emerge in the wrong order. My red large Cadillac is comfortable to ride in. 

Muddled phrasings often slip by when we revise our work because our minds automatically put the words in the correct order. This is the writer’s curse—we see what should be there, the eye skipping over what we actually wrote.

This ability to see a finished product is a necessary facet of the creative instinct. But it is a curse to see our work as intended and not as it is. The naïve belief in the perfection of our work is why we need an unbiased eye to read our work and point out those rough areas.

My large red Cadillac is comfortable to ride in. 

Ferrari_Portofino_M_IMG_4351Actually, my large dirty minivan is not as comfortable to ride in as it used to be. Grandma’s imaginary red Ferrari would be a lot more fun, but alas—if wishes were Ferraris, my driveway would look a lot fancier.

In every language, native speakers automatically order their words in specific ways. In English, we order them this way:

  1. opinion,
  2. size,
  3. age,
  4. shape,
  5. color,
  6. origin,
  7. material,
  8. purpose

Shannon’s light blue wool jacket was left behind.

The Mishmash rule:

“Reduplication” is when a word or part of a word is repeated, sometimes modified, and added to make a longer term, such as aye-ayemishmash, and hotchpotch. This process can mark plurality or intensify meaning, and it can be used for effect or to generate new words. The added part may be invented or it may be an existing word whose form and sense are a suitable fit. Stan Carey, A hotchpotch of reduplication, MacMillan Dictionary Blog 2012. [2]

Have I mentioned how much I adore mishmash words? They roll off the tongue with a kind of rhythm and musicality. Sadly, while I regularly entertain my youngest grandchildren with them, I hardly ever get to write them. Mishmash. Hip-hop.

The Hip-Hop rule:

powerwordsWordCloudLIRF06192021Have you ever wondered why we say fiddle-faddle and not faddle-fiddle? Why is it ping-pong and pitter-patter rather than pong-ping and patter-pitter? Why dribs and drabs rather than vice versa? Why can’t a kitchen be span and spic? Whence riff-raff, mishmash, flim-flam, chit-chat, tit for tat, knick-knack, zig-zag, sing-song, ding-dong, King Kong, criss-cross, shilly-shally, seesaw, hee-haw, flip-flop, hippity-hop, tick-tock, tic-tac-toe, eeny-meeny-miney-moe, bric-a-brac, clickey-clack, hickory-dickory-dock, kit and kaboodle, and bibbity-bobbity-boo? The answer is that the vowels for which the tongue is high and in the front always come before the vowels for which the tongue is low and in the back. (Pinker, The Language Instinct, 1994:167) [3]

So, you now have a mishmash of words, three rules native speakers of English know and use without consciously thinking about it. Wonky word order is just one more thing to watch for when revising our work.


Media: Ferrari Portofino,  Alexander Migl, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

[1] Tim Dowling, Order force: the old grammar rule we all obey without realizing, © The Guardian 2016, (accessed 25 May 2018)

[2] Stan Carey, A hotchpotch of reduplication, MacMillan Dictionary Blog 2012 © Macmillan Publishers Limited 2009-2018. (accessed 25 May 2018)

[3] Steven Pinker, The Language Instinct, Pinker, Steven. 1994. The Language Instinct. New York: HarperPerennial.


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14 responses to “Three Grammar Rules We Know but Don’t Know We Know #amwriting

  1. Often, a good rule of thumb is if it sounds right.

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  2. Thanks for another great lesson, Connie! I think i have to go deeper, and not only trust in Grammmar*y. Lol Have a nice week! xx Michael

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