Tag Archives: rules of word order

3 Rules I knew but never knew I knew #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.

Today I have three wonderful quotes on these rules from linguist Steven Pinker, editor Stan Carey, and Tim Dowling, 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

Word order is why certain sentences seem wrong when you are in the middle of laying down the first draft of a new manuscript. We are madly getting the words out of our heads, and they may fall out in the “wrong” order.  My red large Cadillac is comfortable to ride in. Sometimes these wonky phrasings don’t stand out to us because our minds automatically put the words in the right order, so we don’t see what we have actually written.

My large red Cadillac is comfortable to ride in. 

Actually,my large dirty mini-van is comfortable to ride in, but that’s another story.

To boil what he said down to a bite sized chunk, we automatically order our words this way:

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

Sharon’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-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

I love mishmash words. They are fun to say, and while I regularly taunt 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, mish-mash, 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)

So now you have it – a mishmash of three rules native speakers of English know and use without consciously thinking about it – the whole kit and kaboodle with all the words placed in the right order.


Credits and Attributions:

Media: In the Classroom, Paul Louis Martin des Amoignes (1858–1925) [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons. Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:P L Martin des Amoignes In the classroom 1886.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:P_L_Martin_des_Amoignes_In_the_classroom_1886.jpg&oldid=273566736 (accessed April 28, 2019).

Tim Dowling, Order force: the old grammar rule we all obey without realizing, © The Guardian 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/sep/13/sentence-order-adjectives-rule-elements-of-eloquence-dictionary (accessed 25 May 2018)

Stan Carey, A hotchpotch of reduplication, MacMillan Dictionary Blog 2012 © Macmillan Publishers Limited 2009-2018. http://www.macmillandictionaryblog.com/a-hotchpotch-of-reduplication (accessed 25 May 2018)

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

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