Natural Order

Even though it is still technically a holiday in our house, my daughter’s nose is already back to the grindstone as she works on several projects for her TEFL studies and teaching me things I didn’t know I knew.

She was putting together a grammar test to compare the awareness of grammatical rules in native and non-native English speakers (NS and NNS).

Her theory is that NS will use the rules without realising they’re doing so while NNS will be much more aware of the rules.

I’ve probably made it sound more complicated than it is, although it isn’t necessarily easy to create a questionnaire to prove the point, but I see what she means.

Until she mentioned it, it never occurred to me that there is a natural order of adjectives. Take these words for example: a beautiful, old, round, wooden Chinese table. If I said, ‘a wooden, old, Chinese, round, beautiful table’ it would be plain wrong, so I don’t and without realising it, I’m applying a grammatical rule.

On the off-chance that you haven’t hit the back button by now, the rule for adjective order is opinion first followed by fact, ie ‘beautiful’ followed by ‘old’, ‘Chinese’ etc.

Then there is a rule for the order of the factual adjectives: size, age, shape, colour, material, origin. Which is why the table is old, wooden and Chinese.

Of course, being English, these rigid rules can be broken for emphasis. For example, were I to tell a shop assistant that I wanted to buy an old, wooden table, they might ask if I wanted a round, old, wooden table or a square, old, wooden table by way of emphasising the alternative.

You can probably tell that I’m at a bit of a loose end today, but this is preferable to going to the sales.

Nobody’s prefect. If you find any spelling mistakes or other errors in this post, please let me know by highlighting the text and pressing Ctrl+Enter.

6 comments… Add yours
  • rhymeswithplague 29th December 2011

    How did I manage to reach 70 without knowing these rules for adjectival sequence — opinion, then fact (size, age, shape, colour, material, origin)? Why did E.B. White never mention them? Why did Theodore M. Bernstein never mention them? These are unanswerable questions.

    You — if you are to be believed — have taught me something today.

    I do not know that such “rules” (rigid or otherwise) exist in American English. Must be a British thing….

  • Roger Green 29th December 2011

  • Roger Green 29th December 2011

    Oh, and the Wikipedia adds one to the front, which makes sense – number.

  • rhymeswithplague 29th December 2011

    Roger, you make my head swim. (Can you make the other parts of me swim too? I’ve always wanted to be able to swim.)

    I guess I have been blissfully unaware of these adjective-placement rules my entire life. This proves Miss Parrot’s thesis about NS and NNS.

    But how do we do it? Know them without being taught them, I mean? I suppose it is the total immersion of hearing our own language constantly and knowing intuitively what to do.

  • Mr Pudding 30th December 2011

    What’s wrong with your current table? If you were to replace it I would advise a visit to IKEA at Warrington then you could purchase a designer, pine, Swedish, dropleaf table with a lacquer veneer. Much better than the Chinese one you have had your eye on.

  • Shooting Parrots 30th December 2011

    Mr Plague, I share your incredulity that I’ve managed to reach the age I have without knowing that I knew this rule.

    Roger: I had excluded the determiner because I thought it an obvious rule, but I suppose it might be different for a NNS.

    Mr Pudding: Your make my point for me. At Ikea I might be asked to clarify whether I want a round, designer, pine, Swedish, dropleaf table with a lacquer veneer or a square, designer, pine, Swedish, dropleaf table with a lacquer veneer.


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