The Secret Rules of Adjective Order

If I called someone a little old lady, you’d probably ask if she was from Pasadena. If I called someone an old little lady, you’d lose track of the conversation, because that just doesn’t sound right at all. We know that you don’t wear a purple pretty shirt; you wear a pretty purple shirt, but how do we know that? The order of adjectives is ingrained in native English speakers, without written rules. Oh, but linguists are working on the rules, to put into words what we already know. Linguist Neal Whitman categorizes adjectives into groups, or regions, by their usage. Words in the same region can be ordered any which way, while there is a specific order for adjectives in different regions.   

Whitman distinguishes between correlative pairs of modifiers and the fussier cumulative ones. These, read in succession in a sentence, accrete sense in a specific way. For example, consider the subset of adjectives called operators, which often take part in cumulative constructions. Such terms—“former,” “alleged,” “fake”—fundamentally change the meaning of whatever follows. (An “alleged” thief may not be a thief at all.) Therefore, when dealing with operators, the precise idea you want to express determines the order of adjectives, and a furniture dealer is not at liberty to oscillate between “fake Malaysian ivory”—a material masquerading as Malaysian ivory—and “Malaysian fake ivory”—a not-ivory material from Malaysia. (For more on operator adjectives, also known as non-intersective adjectives, and their role in possible adjective ordering, I mean possible role in adjective ordering, check out Alexandra Teodorescu’s 2006 paper for the 25th West Coast Conference on Formal Linguistics.)

But what about modifiers that sound good in one order and bad in another, even if they convey the same meaning both ways? Though red big barns and big red barns are semantically identical, the second kind pleases our ears more. These tricky situations—neither pure correlation nor accumulation—generally occur when you cross the border between adjectival regions, such as size and color. When that happens, an invisible code snaps into place, and the eight categories shimmy into one magistral conga line: general opinion then specific opinion then size then shape then age then color then provenance then material.

That's an awful lot to learn intuitively, but we manage to do it. It’s not simple, as evidenced by my 3-year-old granddaughter, who is constantly practicing communication by producing an abundant word salad. The grammar will come with time. Read more about adjective order and its rules at Slate. -via Digg


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