About those absolute adjective orders…

Standard

In one morning I’ve been asked six times to comment on this topic. Does this mean my reputation as a linguist is improving?!

The following tweet has been making the rounds over the past few days. As you’ll see by the stats at the bottom, it has been shared tens of thousands of times:

Replies to this tweet state that this is from a book called “The Elements of Eloquence: How to Turn the Perfect English Phrase” by Mark Forsyth (page number unknown). Even some news outlets, including The Independent, have been talking about it, referring to it as “The unwritten rule of English that nobody realises they know” (spoiler: it’s been written in more books than I can comment on here).

So what’s my damn problem this time?

On the whole, I agree with the sentiment. It’s pretty cool that we ‘inherently’ know which order to put adjectives, particularly if you’re a native speaker of English and were never explicitly taught this order. It means I can write the phrases “a lovely little old lady,” “a large cow field” or “that silver triangular thing on the table.”

…can you see the problem yet?

aaa

Take a look again at that last example of the three, “that silver triangular thing on the table.” Did I follow the order given by Forsyth? Nope – I switched the shape and the colour around. I could have just as easily said “that triangular silver thing on the table” which probably provokes the same meaning in your minds (although to me this sounds a little more disjointed that the example I gave). But did you understand what I said? Hopefully so!

My point here isn’t to find a new order or say that the order proposed by Forsyth is wrong, per se. The issue instead lies here (emphasis added):

[…] adjectives in English absolutely have to be in this order […] but if you mess with that order in the slightest you’ll sound like a maniac.

The order is not absolute, and do I sound like a maniac for having messed with the order slightly? Probably not (although I have just used a picture of a cat hiding within a line of meerkats so the jury’s still out on that one).

I have to bite my tongue a lot when it’s claimed that language has to be used in a specific way. It’s prescriptivism at its finest. Sure, there are limits to how I can order the adjectives (e.g. saying “an old little lovely lady” sounds a bit weird, and “a cow large field” messes things up even more), but there seems to be this ever-lasting conception of a right and wrong in language. On top of that, Forsyth notes that you’ll sound like a maniac in the slightest deviation. Joking aside, I don’t think that’s going to help the confidence of any learner or second language speaker of English who might be reading this.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: language is fascinating, and there are patterns that come from the most common or ‘unmarked’ usage. These are not, however, strict rules. For every rule that is out there about language, I would be confident to bet that there would be an exception to be made, whether it be due to something emphatic or another linguistic effect, or purely for the way in which a particular speaker uses the language. To say that there is one ‘proper’ way of using language while refuting myriad examples of language in use seems very closed-minded.

However, don’t take this as my excuse to say “there are no rules.” There are indeed common patterns, and there are indeed limitations wavering from a ‘common centre.’ Absolutes are too restrictive, yet free variation is too broad. Just like everything else, we should embrace the variation that we find, and state our positions within these limits. Without these limits, we’d probably have no idea what we’re on about, but if we’re too strict, we demonise those who differ. Plus, imagine how boring it would be if we all spoke exactly the same! That’s an absolute that I’d like to avoid.

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