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"Though red big barns and big red barns are semantically identical, the second kind pleases our ears more." The Secret Rules of Adjective Order.
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.
Part of Slate's The Good Word series on language.

Many, many resources on the web teach and test adjective order for adult and ESL education; try your hand at the OUP's HeadWay quiz. Descriptivists may disagree: "What about the trump card suggested to me by the son of one Slate colleague: 'BIG STINKY FART'?"
posted by We had a deal, Kyle (64 comments total) 77 users marked this as a favorite

 
But try to sell the intrinsicness hypothesis to those pop groups warbling about a “long cold lonely winter.” (“Long” seems like a more stable quality than “lonely,” which reflects the speaker’s value judgment. And “cold” seems more intrinsic to winter than either of them.)

"Long" here is a subjective assessment of the experience of this particular winter, rather than a stable measurement of time. And "lonely" binds closely to winter here because it's actually the important word in the phrase; Mr. G. Harrison isn't telling you it's been winter, he's telling you it's been lonely.
posted by George_Spiggott at 7:08 PM on August 7 [7 favorites]


As a long-time songwriter, I can only say that trying to set hard-and-fast rules for this kind of thing is doomed to failure. Some orderings just sound better; some just don't.

Now I'll go RTFA; thanks.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 7:11 PM on August 7 [2 favorites]


I feel like we've gone over this before.
posted by unknowncommand at 7:13 PM on August 7


Asked to rank the statements by their acceptability, the volunteers consistently rated highest the one in which the adjectives grew more “intrinsic” as they approached the noun.

This is interesting in the context of the "big red barn" vs "red big barn" comparison. I feel that for an individual barn, its redness is less intrinsic than its bigness -- much easier to paint it than to make it a different size. I feel this way about the "huge fuzzy blanket" example too; I wish there were more information about how size in particular fits into the implicit "intrinsicness" scale. I spent a while trying to decide if I felt like my idea of a Platonic Ur-barn was a red barn more than it was a big barn, but I think the priming effect of reading the phrase "big red barn" so much is confounding my perception.
posted by dorque at 7:19 PM on August 7


I've always been fond of the way French as a language has of splitting adjectives in placements to their nouns based on a pleasing (not even backronym, but something that is more or less based on a linguistic drinking game) condition. Beauty, Age, Goodness, and Size. BAGS. BAGS adjectives go before the noun, other adjectives trail behind.

You're an old woman, but a lake blue.

It even means that things that are semantically similar are different. An 'homme grand' is a big man, but a 'grand homme' is a great man. Context is a wonderful thing.
posted by angerbot at 7:26 PM on August 7 [26 favorites]


I feel like we've gone over this before.

7 years ago. The main link of that FPP is dead now; Wayback Machine copy.
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 7:32 PM on August 7 [3 favorites]


It even means that things that are semantically similar are different. An 'homme grand' is a big man, but a 'grand homme' is a great man. Context is a wonderful thing.

Even more than that: ma maison propre is "my clean house" and ma propre maison is "my own house."

I have studied language for most of my life and taught it occasionally and even so, the syntax that native speakers imbue their language with sometimes defies analysis. I honestly cannot articulate why:
I ran up a big hill.
I ran up a big bill.
both work, but
Up a big hill I ran.
works where
Up a big bill I ran.
does not, while at the same time
I ran a big bill up.
is perfectly acceptable but
I ran a big hill up.
is not.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 7:42 PM on August 7 [12 favorites]


[ran] [up] vs. [ran up]
posted by Sys Rq at 7:44 PM on August 7 [10 favorites]


I ran a big bill up.

is perfectly acceptable but

I ran a big hill up.

is not.


The two phrases aren't entirely parallel. In the first, what goes up is the bill. In the second what goes up is not the hill but you.
posted by George_Spiggott at 7:46 PM on August 7 [5 favorites]


[ran] [up] vs. [ran up]

Phrasal verb, I think. Truthfully, I'd only ever heard it called a separable verb, but apparently that's not quite right when talking about English.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 7:54 PM on August 7 [3 favorites]


Be right back
gonna go read about
big red barns.
posted by symbioid at 8:01 PM on August 7 [1 favorite]


"I ran a big hill up."

That's why I had so much trouble attempting to learn other languages (native English speaker). Seems that's how you'd translate that from Japanese, then have to re-order the sentence to English salience.

Then again, I have always heard that English is particularly tough for native speakers of other languages too....
posted by CrowGoat at 8:01 PM on August 7


"Ran up" is indeed a phrasal verb -- you can run up or down or over or around a big hill, but you can't run down or over or around a big bill (or you can, but then you're doing exercise, not spending). Generally you can identify them because you can't move the preposition far from the verb, either by putting it in front or by putting lots of nouns and adjectives in between (pronouns go in between just fine), and, more crucially, because you cannot just substitute any old preposition in there.

Also, you can't figure out the meaning of the phrase by the verbs -- "run up" in the sense of a bill isn't predictable if you know what run and up mean, while the hill one is clear.

(I did a big, irritating project about these kinds of phrases.)
posted by jeather at 8:15 PM on August 7 [2 favorites]


I should clarify: I know about phrasal verbs, but I mean I cannot articulate the rationale in a satisfactory manner to anyone else. It is much like me trying to explain why we move the clocks forward by an hour in the spring. We just do, all right?
posted by ricochet biscuit at 8:23 PM on August 7


(I don't ...)
posted by ZenMasterThis at 8:26 PM on August 7


When I was teaching English as a Second Language, it disappointed all of us how often I had to sigh and say "That's just how English works, there isn't really a rule that makes sense." It comforted them when I explained that English is not really a language, it's more a shambling creole. Or as one teacher of mine described it, "the result of a Norman knight trying to pick up a Saxon barmaid---bits of French to seem important, some Latin for the technical stuff, and Anglo-Saxon for the words he wants to make really clear."
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 8:32 PM on August 7 [30 favorites]


7 years ago. The main link of that FPP is dead now

Thanks! I love the topic; it wasn't a complaint, more an unsettling déjà vu situation.
posted by unknowncommand at 8:54 PM on August 7


This article is terrible. I mean, her writing is terrible. Writers who clearly understand a subject can explain it clearly. She obviously does not understand this topic at all. She just writes as if she does understand it. That is infuriating.

When I was teaching English as a Second Language, it disappointed all of us how often I had to sigh and say "That's just how English works, there isn't really a rule that makes sense."

Yes, we used to call this "native speaker intuition." I assure you, there are linguistic rules behind any structure that we use intuitively, but we may not consciously know the rule. Even worse, if we could explain the rule, it would probably confuse the second-language learner. But native speakers have internalized the rule and are able to use it fluently, without being able to explain it.

I had an amusing experience with these obscure linguistic rules. One of my Japanese instructors got a copy of the Japanese College Entrance Exam and gave us the English section. It was all in English, so we had no trouble reading the questions. But the questions were all about obscure grammar rules. In our class of about 20 students (including a woman working on her PhD in Linguistics) none of us could answer a single question. Every single multiple choice answer seemed incorrect, if not incomprehensible. Apparently this is how English is taught to Japanese students. There are very few teachers who are native English speakers, so English is taught by teachers who can't actually speak English, but can describe linguistic rules in Japanese terminology. The students are expected to demonstrate their knowledge of linguistic rules, rather than any ability to use the language.
posted by charlie don't surf at 9:01 PM on August 7 [6 favorites]


How can there be very few native English speakers when "going to Japan to teach English" used to be such a big thing?
posted by bleep at 9:05 PM on August 7


How can there be very few native English speakers when "going to Japan to teach English" used to be such a big thing?

Because that program incorporates them as Assistant Language teachers. It circumvents the need for a teaching license in Japan, but it also leads to many of them being used as "human tape recorders," i.e. just demonstrating the correct pronunciation/intonation of their textbooks' dialogues. The foreign ALT always teaches together with another certified full-time Japanese teacher who usually plans all the curriculum, and is much less fluent. Even if the ALT were given more planning input, the overall curriculum is pretty well mapped out by the Ministry of Ed. and is largely centered around their high-school and college placement exams.

Also there is usually 1 only ALT per school who jumps around between the different classes, so any given class will have English 3 times a week, but the ALT usually only makes it to one of those classes (sometimes less).
posted by p3t3 at 9:20 PM on August 7 [3 favorites]


Let's not get too derailed with this, but suffice to say, English language education in Japan is abysmal. There are very few native speakers as teachers in high schools, even though all students must study English. Professional language instructors at the college level, even with TOEFL certs and degree qualifications, have extreme difficulty getting positions. Most of the "going to Japan to teach English" thing was adult education, which was mostly an entertainment product. And the biggest chain of English schools went bankrupt a few years ago.

Anyway, to get back on the rails, I remember learning adjective order in Japanese and was surprised that I never even considered there were rules for it in English. That's one of the main reasons for foreign language instruction at the college level, it's not intended to help you attain fluency in a second language, it's intended to make you think more clearly about your native language. So I was particularly disappointed at the article's citation of a book that compares adjective order in other languages costs $295. I would read that book, but not at that price.
posted by charlie don't surf at 9:22 PM on August 7


I am blaming this thread for making me seek out and listen to this for the first time since seventy-mumbly.
posted by maudlin at 9:47 PM on August 7


dl;tr
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 9:49 PM on August 7 [5 favorites]


Gordon Ramsay is seemingly breathtakingly stunningly deliciously unaffected by these secret rules.
posted by ddd at 10:01 PM on August 7 [2 favorites]


Some serial combinatiions are more pleasing to the ear, Casa Blanca.

Blanca Casa sounds like someone accidentally ingested an emetic.
posted by vapidave at 10:15 PM on August 7 [1 favorite]


It's an interesting subject and I enjoyed the call-outs to poetry -- but wow, I really didn't like her writing style either. It seemed so self-consciously overdone.
posted by en forme de poire at 10:23 PM on August 7


you can run up or down or over or around a big hill, but you can't run down or over or around a big bill

Also: Americans fill out forms; Brits, Aussies and Kiwis fill them in; Indians fill them up.
posted by flabdablet at 10:55 PM on August 7 [1 favorite]


Our own elizardbits has a marvellous ear for these things.
posted by flabdablet at 10:56 PM on August 7 [2 favorites]


This might have been the key to J.R.R. Tolkein's interest in linguistics.
“The Hobbit” or the Very Beginning

green dragonIn his letter to W.H. Auden J.R.R. Tolkien narrates his first steps in the field of literature. We learn that at the age of seven Tolkien wrote his first story. It was about a dragon. He remembered nothing about it except a philological fact. Tolkien’s main reviewer was his mother who said nothing about the dragon, but pointed out that one could not say “a green great dragon”, but had to say “a great green dragon”. It made him puzzled. Later he would often recall that remark.
posted by Space Coyote at 11:49 PM on August 7 [5 favorites]


Then again, I have always heard that English is particularly tough for native speakers of other languages too....

Who says this? Native English speakers who can't speak any other language? English is very easy to learn - no genders, essentially no cases (Estonian has 14), relatively rigid sentence structure... as an example, in Estonian every single permutation of the sentence "taevas nähti tihti tähti" is grammatically correct, and you need a poetic ear and sense of language history to tell what's different between them. The sentence means "stars were often seen in the sky" - how much can you rearrange the word order of this English sentence before it loses its meaning?
posted by Pyrogenesis at 12:38 AM on August 8 [4 favorites]


Stars were often seen in the sky
Often seen in the sky were stars
In the sky stars were often seen
Seen often in the sky were stars
Were stars often seen in the sky(?)
In the sky ... often seen ... were stars
posted by Kerasia at 2:17 AM on August 8 [3 favorites]


Anyway, here's a brief explanation of the free word order.
posted by Pyrogenesis at 4:01 AM on August 8


Stars in the sky were often seen.
Often stars were in the sky seen.
Often in the sky were stars seen.
Stars often were seen in the sky.
Seen in the sky, often, were stars.
Stars in the sky were seen often.
And so on.
posted by Alnedra at 4:06 AM on August 8 [3 favorites]


Natural mostly sound those to me don't.
posted by Segundus at 4:15 AM on August 8 [4 favorites]


It comforted them when I explained that English is not really a language, it's more a shambling creole. Or as one teacher of mine described it, "the result of a Norman knight trying to pick up a Saxon barmaid---bits of French to seem important, some Latin for the technical stuff, and Anglo-Saxon for the words he wants to make really clear."

Please don't ever explain English like this. The language is not a creole nor some stuck together jargon. It's a pretty normal Germanic language with relatively shallow but extensive vocabulary borrowing from French and Latin (indeed, English was more influenced by old Norse). It's not even remarkable by world standards.
posted by Thing at 4:29 AM on August 8 [7 favorites]


N'er mind.
posted by Kerasia at 4:35 AM on August 8


In my previous life as an English teacher in Japan*, when we got to this, I always told students that the key was to determine the thing that was least likely to change over time. That's the adjective that would go closest to the noun. That sweater is going to likely stay green, and people, sadly, are more likely to swell over time, rendering that looseness more temporary than we'd like. If, however, it's a wool sweater, that's not likely to change, so we get a loose green wool sweater. Fashion, though, changes even faster than the human body, so it would be more likely to be a fashionable loose green wool sweater.

Watching fifteen year olds learning a second language debating which adjective was less likely to change was awesome.

not every high school teacher in Japan is an alt, though most are. If you're lucky, you might find a job where the actual native speaker is the leader, if not sole teacher in the class. These jobs are rare, and becoming moreso. Strangely, the rarity of these positions seems to have something to do with the increasing number of government reports about how bad English education is here.
posted by Ghidorah at 4:42 AM on August 8 [3 favorites]


I for one welcome our Natural Language Parsing overlords.
Sorry, couldn't help it.
posted by xtian at 4:44 AM on August 8


It's not even remarkable by world standards.

Ouch!
posted by aught at 5:42 AM on August 8


The language is not a creole

But is it shambling?

I quite like the idea of Spanish strutting, italian dancing and German marching while this over-stuffed cookie monster of a language shambles around snarfing up vocab with no sense of decorum at all.
posted by Segundus at 5:54 AM on August 8 [13 favorites]


relatively shallow but extensive vocabulary

Out of curiosity, what's a deep vocabulary in this context, i.e. if an extensive vocabulary can be shallow?
posted by Drexen at 6:21 AM on August 8


I always loved that 'ancien/ancienne' in French means either former or old depending on whether it comes before or after the noun it modifies.

Un homme ancien is an old man. Un ancien homme implies that you know much more about this woman's background.

This is a hilariously easy mistake for an English speaker to make while learning French.
posted by plinth at 6:23 AM on August 8


I have this sudden urge to rewatch the Star Wars movies and see if Yoda ever uses multiple adjectives.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 6:25 AM on August 8


And yet, finally, we are advised to cut adjectives as much as possible in our writing.
posted by Postroad at 6:38 AM on August 8


Paging languagehat, languagehat to the courtesy white phone.
posted by RolandOfEld at 7:16 AM on August 8 [2 favorites]


I am blaming this thread for making me seek out and listen to this for the first time since seventy-mumbly.

Aw, I thought sure you were linking to this.
posted by straight at 7:28 AM on August 8


Oh.. I forgot to comment on the worst part of this article:

Commas themselves are a more complicated matter, says John T. Beavers, a professor of linguistics at the University of Texas at Austin. Because they often function as pauses, they can isolate an adjective from whatever flow might otherwise sweep it under, abetting Adjective Order Crimes.

No no no no no NO NO.

Commas indicate clauses, not pauses.
posted by charlie don't surf at 8:05 AM on August 8


> It comforted them when I explained that English is not really a language, it's more a shambling creole.

Like Thing said, this is nonsense. All languages are full of things that are hard or impossible to "explain" in the terms your students wanted; it's just that they take for granted such things in their own language. Which brings us to:

> I have always heard that English is particularly tough for native speakers of other languages too

> English is very easy to learn

These are both wrong! English is not easy to learn (ask anyone who's tried), but it is not "particularly tough"—all languages are difficult to learn, though in certain respects languages typologically close to yours are easier (though of course you will then be subject to faux amis and other false assumptions based on your own language).
posted by languagehat at 8:27 AM on August 8 [2 favorites]


> Commas indicate clauses, not pauses.

Oh yeah? So "a long, long time" indicates two separate clauses? Bzzzt. Commas are hard, too; just ask a copyeditor. Simple, one-sentence "explanations" of almost anything relating to language are bound to be wrong.
posted by languagehat at 8:28 AM on August 8 [5 favorites]


In English sentences, commas can do many, many things other than indicate clauses. They do, sometimes, indicate pauses, though they have other functions.
posted by nangar at 8:31 AM on August 8


"Pawses, not clawses" is the new mantra for my occasionally rowdy street urchin of a cat.
posted by nobody at 8:39 AM on August 8 [9 favorites]


One of the things that interests me about adjective-ordering rules is that there's almost no culture of rules-lawyering around them as with things like split infinitives and terminal prepositions and so forth. It's a set of grammatical "rules" that we allow to be simply intuitive. So much so, indeed, that it can come as a surprise even to sophisticated, highly-educated users of the language that there even are such "rules."
posted by yoink at 9:04 AM on August 8 [2 favorites]


So "a long, long time" indicates two separate clauses?

There are other comma rules. The one that applies here is "Use a comma to separate two adjectives when the adjectives are interchangeable." Identical adjectives are interchangeable, "a long1, long2 time" is equivalent to "a long2, long1 time"

I would argue that this indicates two clauses, "a long1 time" and "a long2 time."
posted by charlie don't surf at 9:57 AM on August 8


It's nice that you know the html tag for subscripts, charlie, but that doesn't make your comment make any more sense. "A long time" is a noun phrase. "A long, long time" is also a noun phrase. Hint: For a phrase to be a clause, it needs to have a verb in it.

The basic problem here is that you trashed the original article, but you didn't know what you were talking about. I know, this is supposed to make you look smart on MetFilter, but it didn't work. By refusing to admit any of your statements are wrong, you're digging yourself deeper and deeper into complete non-sense.
posted by nangar at 10:54 AM on August 8


MetaFilter: By refusing, to admit, any, of your statements are, wrong, you're digging yourself, deeper and deeper, into complete non-sense.
posted by tonycpsu at 11:13 AM on August 8 [2 favorites]


"a long, long time" is a sentence fragment proposed by languagehat that we are examining in isolation, without the rest of the sentence. We are primarily interested in adjectives. "long time" is a noun modified by an adjective. If you insist we cannot analyze this use of commas to separate adjectives, unless we complete these clauses, e.g. "I worked a long, long time," then you are merely being pedantic.
posted by charlie don't surf at 11:30 AM on August 8


all languages are difficult to learn, though in certain respects languages typologically close to yours are easier

Indeed. Although one thing: what is difficult to learn is the culture - culture as expressed in language. Words, expressions, paragraphs: these are easy, mostly. But try to translate words and expressions that are at the same time both ordinary and heavily culturally specific: that's what drives translators such as myself up the wall. Say: 19th century American midwest vocabulary - how do you translate something into a northern language that has none of the experience? Every American recognises slavery-related words, for example, but there was no similar slavery, no vocabulary (and for sure no southern drawl) around here. The key expressions that would express power relations would have no impact whatsoever when translated directly.
posted by Pyrogenesis at 12:47 PM on August 8


I used to write and edit, and teach writing and editing, for a big online text-based game. I had to make up hard and fast rules for this, because the college kids I was working with would consistently describe a "wooden brown large table." The number of rules I had to come up with was ridiculous.

The example above of "long, cold, lonely winter" worked in them, because "lonely" is a longer word than the others, and so should go last, in the absence of a color or material. If it were a long, cold, lonely yellow winter, that'd be different.

(Note also no comma before the color. Those kids hated me.)
posted by kostia at 2:34 PM on August 8 [1 favorite]


Regarding Tolkein: According to this excellent New Yorker review, characteristic of his Beowulf translation is retaining the odd word order of Old English, i.e. “Didst thou for Hrothgar king renowned in any wise amend his grief so widely noised?”

As for difficulty: From my experiences with students and other non-native speakers, it always seemed to me that English is a particularly easy language in which to achieve basic communication skills (thanks to its relative paucity of genders, declensions, and cases), but devilishly hard to speak without errors that are obvious to any native speaker.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 9:12 PM on August 8


As cold as a witch's tits in a brass bra.
As useless as teets on a boar hog.
Anything more than a mouthful is wasted.
posted by breadbox at 2:18 AM on August 9


Trying to help charlie don't surf stop digging his deep, deep hole is a futile, unrewarding exercise.
posted by flabdablet at 2:57 AM on August 9


what a great post! :)
posted by xoxoroseberry68xoxo at 4:19 AM on August 9


For people who prefer YouTube guides to everything, here is Tom Scott talking about adjectival order as part of his language files:
I would love to say that I could explain adjective ordering. I wish I could tell you why, in English, you can have that ‘big red balloon’ but not a ‘red big balloon’. But I have been searching through the literature and while there are plenty of descriptions of how it works there is no consensus – and frankly very few theories – about why.

Adjectival Order: Why A “Big Red Balloon”, not a “Red Big Balloon”? (11 Dec 2013)
posted by Martijn at 4:42 AM on August 9 [1 favorite]


Note: Help maintain a healthy, respectful discussion by focusing comments on the
issues, topics, and facts at hand—not at other members of the site.


Stick to the linguistics, ad hominem attacks aren't as clever as you thought. If you want to get in the middle of a difference of opinion between people with linguistics degrees and professional credentials, you will have to do a lot better.
posted by charlie don't surf at 4:44 PM on August 9 [1 favorite]


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