Syntax and Instinctive Grammar Rules #amwriting

Syntax is defined as the arrangement of words and phrases to create well-formed sentences in a language. English has certain standard rules of speech that are learned so early on in life that they are instinctual.

Words-And-How-We-Use-ThemNo matter the level of our education or the dialect we speak, we use these rules and don’t realize we are doing so.

Several years ago, I found three delightful 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, 13 September 2016. [1]

My editor often finds and points out words whose order must be rearranged to sound natural. Some sentences seem clumsy when she reads them because when I first wrote that section, I was going too fast and put my words in the wrong order.

I didn’t notice it during the revision process. Some hokey phrasing goes unnoticed by me through upwards of six revisions.

Why do we overlook typos and errors in our work? tells us:

… the more familiar our brains are with the content in print, the less we are able to focus on details. It’s how our brains are designed to work. We often cannot see our own writing mistakes. (Susan Kruger Winter, CEO & Founder of SOAR Learning, Inc. Why We Can’t See Our Own (Writing) Mistakes, 22 July 2018) [2]

It happens because, in the first draft, I am madly getting the words out of my head. My ability to use a pen or run the keyboard can’t keep up with the stream of words falling from my mind.

  • (Wrong) My red large Cadillac is fun to drive.
  • (Right) My large red Cadillacis fun to drive.

Actually, my small blue KIA Soul is fun to drive. (Grandma’s imaginary red Ferrari would be a lot more fun, but no one would be safe on the road.)

powerwordsWordCloudLIRF06192021Muddled phrasings often slip by when I revise my work because my mind sees the words as if they were in the correct order. This is the writer’s curse—the internal editor knows what should be there, and the eye skips over what we actually wrote.

This ability to see our work as if it were finished is a necessary aspect of creativity. We have an image of what it should look like and know what needs to be done to shape it that way. However, after so many hours of laboring on a manuscript, our brains can trick us into seeing what we intended to write, overlooking the flaws.

When I first began writing, I had a naïve belief in the perfection of my work. I was soon shown differently, and (once I grew a thicker skin) I found a good editor.

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

Stephen’s dark blue wool jacket was left behind.

Another rule I love is 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-aye, mishmash, 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.) [3]

mish-mash-ruleI adore mishmash words. They’re poetic and musical and roll off the tongue with a satisfying rhythm. Sadly, while I regularly bore my grandchildren with them, I hardly ever get to write them. Mishmash. Hip-hop.

The Hip-Hop rule:

Have 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) [4]

Verbs are power words. The order in which we place them affects how readers see our work. Sometimes we frontload our sentences like this: In any situation, Charlotte runs toward danger.

Moving the action to the beginning of the sentence makes it stronger. Nouns followed by verbs make active prose: Charlotte runs toward danger, never away.

First drafts are the place where we might write something like: Running toward danger, Charlotte was happy. This kind of awkwardness says what we mean but does it poorly. It might slip through many revisions because the internal editor rearranges them correctly, and we don’t see it as written.

WordItOut-word-cloud-4074543“Ing” words are a terrible temptation to those of us raised on Tolkien. He was writing a century ago, but that style of lush prose has fallen out of fashion. We open the gate to all sorts of verbal mayhem when we lead off with an “ing” word at the front of a sentence.

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

But it’s easier to notice strange syntax when we are reading another author’s work.


[1] Tim Dowling, Order force: the old grammar rule we all obey without realizing, © The Guardian 2016, (accessed 13 January 2023).

[2] Susan Kruger Winter, CEO & Founder of SOAR Learning, Inc. Why We Can’t See Our Own (Writing) Mistakes, 22 July 2018 (accessed 13 January 2023).

[3] Stan Carey, A hotchpotch of reduplication, MacMillan Dictionary Blog 2012 © Macmillan Publishers Limited 2009-2023. (accessed 13 January 2023).

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


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13 responses to “Syntax and Instinctive Grammar Rules #amwriting

  1. Johanna Flynn

    I loved the playfulness of this blog! Lots of fun to read.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Best post on grammar I’ve read in quite a while – nicely done. 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  3. A most interesting post. I never thought about why we say ping-pong, mish-mash etc. It’s fascinating to find out why.
    The other thing about syntax that is increasing are things like, ‘The man was sentenced for stealing a handbag in court today.’
    And something I see every time I turn on my TV. It tells me to ‘turn on your set-top box’.
    Now, if I said that ‘the dog turned on its owner’, or ‘the crowd suddenly turned on their team’, it means that the dog attacked the owner, or the crowd became hostile to the team.
    I don’t think this message is telling me to become hostile to the box, nor to put it on the ground and do a pirouette on it.
    It should say ‘Turn your set-top box on.’
    This type of syntax error is becoming almost ubiquitous.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Told by you this all sounds so easy, Connie! I will try again to get better grammar into my braincells. 🙂 Thanks, and best wishes, Michael

    Liked by 1 person