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a fascinating short timely rectangular (due to the CSS box model) white-on-blue American pixel-based educational post (about adjectives)
May 19, 2007 11:58 AM   Subscribe

"The old, mean man" vs. "The mean old man." Here's an aspect of English (and other languages) I've never thought of before. If you're using a string of adjectives, there's a natural order for them to appear in: "opinion :: size :: age :: shape :: color :: origin :: material :: purpose". (Although I find "old, mean," due to it's strange order, sort of striking.) [more info: 1, 2, 3]
posted by grumblebee (91 comments total) 43 users marked this as a favorite

 
I remember reading a discussion of the difference between a "plant zombie" and a "zombie plant". I guess something similar happens with nouns, too.
posted by Richard Daly at 12:03 PM on May 19, 2007


teaching English in Japan for two+ years I discovered a lot things like this. This particular observation was in a very excellent Longman workbook, but I forget the name now and Amazon isn't really helping (been 15 years now, sheesh).
posted by Heywood Mogroot at 12:07 PM on May 19, 2007


To me, "plant zombie" conjures up the image of a human-shaped zombie that happens to be made of vegetable matter. Whereas a "zombie plant" is an undead rhododendron.
posted by grumblebee at 12:10 PM on May 19, 2007


Interesting. Also: when you make a compound (or what the proper term is) out of two words, what element should come first? Why pickpocket and not pocketpicker? This word has always seemed to go against the way English usually does things. Compare French and English here.
posted by Termite at 12:12 PM on May 19, 2007


The old mean man is the one who was replaced by the new mean man.
posted by Faint of Butt at 12:13 PM on May 19, 2007


You're right about the "old mean man," Faint of Butt, but not about the "old, mean man."
posted by grumblebee at 12:15 PM on May 19, 2007


I first tried to write a story when I was about seven. It was about a dragon. I remember nothing about it except a philological fact. My mother 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'. I wondered why, and still do. The fact that I remember this is possibly significant, as I do not think I ever tried to write a story again for many years, and was taken up with language.

- J.R.R. Tolkien, from a letter to W.H. Auden (7 June 1955) in which he explains how his tale-telling arose from his philology (Tolkien famously said that he created Middle-earth as a setting for his languages, not vice versa).
posted by wilko at 12:16 PM on May 19, 2007 [12 favorites]


Thanks for this excellent thread! I think much of this--the order of the adjectives--is intuitive to those of us who love the written word. We know when something sounds wrong, but we don't know why. Now I know why!
posted by misha at 12:22 PM on May 19, 2007


Termite, we need languagehat here, but I suspect "pickpocket" vs. "pocketpicker" is just a matter of which got coined first (and stuck). There are plenty of pocketpicker-like words and phrases: nose-picker, etc.

Come to think of it, maybe there is a rule -- but I'm really reaching here. Most of the pocket-picker-ish phrases I can think of have a temporary feel, as if we haven't yet decided that they're important enough to be common, "eternal" words.

For instance "deep thinker." That a little more than an adjective modifying a noun. We recognize an actual "object" that's a deep thinker. But we don't generally talk about deep thinkers all that much. So those two words seem poised to break apart again an go their own ways.

Whereas if deep thinkers were as popular as, say, pickpockets, maybe we'd wind up joining the two words together in a more permanent way -- a way that couldn't be confused with a adj-noun phrase: "John's a read thinkdeep."
posted by grumblebee at 12:23 PM on May 19, 2007


Richard Daly, in that example, isn't the preceding noun working a bit like an adjective? I can see why it'd make quite a difference.
posted by Firas at 12:23 PM on May 19, 2007 [1 favorite]


For the purposes of this conversation, you may think of me as the new mean old man. I'm replacing the former or 'old' mean old man by means of planting his zombie with my zombie plant.

It's complicated.
posted by quin at 12:29 PM on May 19, 2007


Thanks for this excellent, short, new, concise, blue, blog-culled, digital, informative post!
posted by sourwookie at 12:29 PM on May 19, 2007


Seeing as I learned these rules thoroughly without them ever being explicated to me, I wonder if the best way for people to learn them is through explication. If someone's learning english, does the poor devil really need to be shown that chart in the first link? It's interesting for sure, but maybe busywork as far as actual learning.
posted by Rich Smorgasbord at 12:32 PM on May 19, 2007


Compare pickpocket with cutpurse, too. (And, hey, what about a real cutthroat fella? Or simply a cutthroat, if you will.)

I wonder if it's mostly a matter of era of coinage and luck—it can't just be a matter of the unseemly role of a pickpocket or a cutpurse, or we'd have liftshops to deal with as well, and stealhorses and so on.
posted by cortex at 12:32 PM on May 19, 2007


But what about the median old man?
posted by davejay at 12:34 PM on May 19, 2007 [2 favorites]


Why isn't the explanation that "old, mean man" requires a comma (to distinguish it from the Faint Of Butt case) while "mean old man" does not, and commas are irritating and slow things down, both in print and verbally?
posted by Kwine at 12:41 PM on May 19, 2007


Seeing as I learned these rules thoroughly without them ever being explicated to me, I wonder if the best way for people to learn them is through explication.

If Chompsky and his ilk are correct (and if I understand them correctly, which is a big if), you can learn language this way (via examples rather than rules) when you're an infant and small child.

This is because children have a structure (or structures) in the brain that are ready to be filled in with the rules of a specific language.

My guess is that you no longer have these structures (or they're weaker or already filled in) when you're older and learning a second language.

On the other hand, maybe you're right. I firmly believe that the standard methods for teaching Math and Literature are rubbish. So why not language, too?
posted by grumblebee at 12:42 PM on May 19, 2007


There are plenty of pocketpicker-like words and phrases: nose-picker, etc.

Nobody likes a nosepick.
posted by treepour at 12:44 PM on May 19, 2007


"Pickpocket" is an action: picking [something] out of a pocket.

"Pocket-picker" is a thing: one who pickpockets.
posted by five fresh fish at 12:46 PM on May 19, 2007


Kwine, that IS the explanation. It's in the article.

I agree that with you and the author that the comma version is, in general, unnecessary. "Mean old man" is more succinct. My only counter-point is that sometimes "old, mean man" is more striking. It makes me think about the fact that he's an old man AND a mean man. "Old mean man" runs together a bit in my brain.
posted by grumblebee at 12:46 PM on May 19, 2007


...though why one would say "He's a dagnabbed pickpocket" instead of "he's a nabdagged pocket-picker" is, I suppose, the issue...
posted by five fresh fish at 12:47 PM on May 19, 2007


Also, "old, mean man" versus "mean old man" -- "mean" may be an opinion, not a fact. Age, otoh, is pretty factual.
posted by five fresh fish at 12:48 PM on May 19, 2007


I remember reading a discussion of the difference between a "plant zombie" and a "zombie plant". I guess something similar happens with nouns, too.

Well, that's not the same thing. In that case one word is an adjective, and the other is a noun. Like the difference between a red fire engine and fire-engine red.
posted by delmoi at 12:51 PM on May 19, 2007


The King James Bible speaks of a "still small voice," by which it means a conscience. I think we'd write it as "still, small voice." It doesn't mean a voice that was small and hour ago and is now STILL small. It means (I think) a voice that is both calm (still) and small.

According to one version of the order rule, it should be "small still voice." (rule: "Determiner, Opinion, Size, Shape, Condition, Age, Color, Origin" -- small = size; still = condition)

But I like still, small better. Sometimes a comma is a shorthand for "and," as in "eggs, milk, sugar and butter," which could be "eggs and milk and sugar and butter." Maybe that's what's going on. Maybe "still, small voice" is short for "still and small voice."

I realize that is still very similar to "small still voice", but "small still voice" implies hierarchy. It's a STILL voice that happens to be small. Whereas with "still and small voice" (and "still, small voice"?) the modifiers have equal weight.
posted by grumblebee at 1:10 PM on May 19, 2007


This wretched, ugly, dwarfish, ancient, misshapen, livid, Midwestern flesh eater could not disagree more.

And no, I don't just eat Midwestern flesh.
posted by Astro Zombie at 1:10 PM on May 19, 2007


Excellent link, very useful!
posted by JHarris at 1:18 PM on May 19, 2007


Nobody likes a nosepick.

Er, I meant picknose. Drat! *puts on dunce hat and sits in corner*
posted by treepour at 1:24 PM on May 19, 2007


Chompsky indeed.
posted by AwkwardPause at 1:38 PM on May 19, 2007


five fresh fish
"pickpocket" is both a noun and a verb.
posted by Sangermaine at 1:47 PM on May 19, 2007


Pretty dang neat FPP. Thanks!
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 1:49 PM on May 19, 2007


Seeing as I learned these rules thoroughly without them ever being explicated to me, I wonder if the best way for people to learn them is through explication.

If by "people" you mean "adult learners," yes, it probably is. As children we absorb this stuff naturally, but as adults we have to work at it, and for most people explicit rules help a lot.

Nice post. This is the kind of thing I point to as real grammar, as opposed to the fake grammar involved in complaints about split infinitives and sentence-ending prepositions. Real grammar doesn't need to be taught to native speakers, though it's fun and educational to see it spelled out.

(Oh, and as for commas: punctuation has nothing to do with grammar, it's purely arbitrary. The ancients didn't bother with it at all, and they had just as much grammar as we do.)
posted by languagehat at 2:03 PM on May 19, 2007 [2 favorites]



If Chompsky and his ilk are correct (and if I understand them correctly, which is a big if), you can learn language this way (via examples rather than rules) when you're an infant and small child.

This is because children have a structure (or structures) in the brain that are ready to be filled in with the rules of a specific language.

My guess is that you no longer have these structures (or they're weaker or already filled in) when you're older and learning a second language.


I studied linguistics in a very Chomskyite program, and what I remember was this: when you're older and learning a second language, those structures are still available to you, but we don't start with a blank slate, so we tend to pull rules from our first language until we have heard enough of language 2 to assimilate its rules. And second language learners, by and large, don't get the massive amounts of language input (including simplified language input) that babies do.

I started studying Japanese in high school, and after about nine years, I have some very strong intuitions about what sounds "right" and what doesn't, but there are also a lot of cases where I don't have those intuitions.
posted by Jeanne at 2:06 PM on May 19, 2007


There's this great game I play with my English-language students about this very topic - they've got to come up with an absurd invention and describe it using the longest chain of adjectives (in the correct order) that they can.

The current record holder, which I wrote down before I left my job in February so I wouldn't forget it, is a "fierce small young round green Mexican metallic throwing mango," which is used as a weapon like a cannonball, but is smaller, thrown by hand, and is camouflaged as a mango.
posted by mdonley at 2:25 PM on May 19, 2007 [3 favorites]


The King James Bible speaks of a "still small voice," by which it means a conscience.

People do use the phrase "still small voice" to mean a conscience, but in the original context (one of the Elijah tales), the still small voice (no comma in my edition) was the medium through which Elijah encountered the Lord, who had been absent in more showy phenomena.

1 Kings 19:11-13 And he said, Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the LORD. And, behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the LORD; but the LORD was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the LORD was not in the earthquake:

And after the earthquake a fire; but the LORD was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice.

And it was so, when Elijah heard it, that he wrapped his face in his mantle, and went out, and stood in the entering in of the cave. And, behold, there came a voice unto him, and said, What doest thou here, Elijah?


In the Carmelite Tradition, popularized by St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross, this became a central text for teaching about encountering the Lord through quiet contemplative prayer. (More on topic, I would never have written contemplative quiet prayer.)
posted by Pater Aletheias at 2:35 PM on May 19, 2007 [1 favorite]


The Onion knows all about this.
posted by hoverboards don't work on water at 2:46 PM on May 19, 2007


I would never have written contemplative quiet prayer.

Good, because that would be horrible writing. A prayer (unless, by "prayer" you mean "a person who is praying") can never be contemplative. A prayer isn't sentient. However, you can contemplate while you're praying.

I can't stand it when people wily-nilly turn verbs into adjectives. "Contemplate while you pray" or "Use this prayer to contemplate" comes close to conjuring up imagery. But I see no picture in my mind when I hear of contemplative prayers.

The better phrases still aren't great (which is why I said they "come close"). You can't contemplate in general. You have to comtemplate about something. Otherwise you're not contemplating. You're mind is wandering our you're zoning out.

I agree with most writing teachers that fuzzy writing reveals fuzzy thought. When someone brings up "contemplative prayers," I always suspect they're not really thinking about what they're saying.
posted by grumblebee at 2:49 PM on May 19, 2007


Cutpurse is excellent cortex. You blackguard you.
posted by vronsky at 3:07 PM on May 19, 2007


Now the tough question is this: how do we apply it to LOLCat language?
posted by five fresh fish at 3:08 PM on May 19, 2007


Also, "old, mean man" versus "mean old man" -- "mean" may be an opinion, not a fact. Age, otoh, is pretty factual.

At what age are you officially "old," then?
posted by waitingtoderail at 3:28 PM on May 19, 2007


At what age are you officially "old," then?

I see your point, waitingtoderail, but there's a specific category for age. So whether age is an opinion or not, it should go in its own category.

Also, all of this stuff is a matter of convention. So while "old" is a judgment call, there is -- traditionally -- a specific object called an "old man." Unless I'm thinking really clearly and exactly, I consider someone who is 87 to be universally old. That may be opinion, but it's such a common opinion that -- for something as in-exact as we're talking about -- it might as well be fact. Whereas "mean" is generally considered opinion.
posted by grumblebee at 3:35 PM on May 19, 2007


My new sock puppet is going to be "fresh five fish."
posted by artifarce at 4:06 PM on May 19, 2007 [1 favorite]


metallic blue diamond ring: (material, color, shape)
Fat old man: (shape, age)
Wooden Roman coin: (material, origin)
purple silly string: (color, opinion)
posted by vacapinta at 4:57 PM on May 19, 2007


Coincidentally (?) yesterday's Christian Science Monitor contained an article on this exact topic -- Rules No One Teaches But Everyone Learns
posted by Bureau of Public Secrets at 5:10 PM on May 19, 2007


Good, because that would be horrible writing. A prayer [...] can never be contemplative. A prayer isn't sentient.

IANAnative speaker of English, but I'm gonna hafta call total bullshit on that forealz.

I don't know who ever told you that sentience was a prerequisite for deserving "contemplative" as an adjective, but I'd say you were misinformed. A (non-sentient) story or book or film can surely be contemplative in nature, no? (Or brooding or pensive or lilting or carefree, etc.)

Why not a prayer?
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 5:14 PM on May 19, 2007


purple silly string: (color, opinion)

colour, brandname. "Silly String" is practically one word.
posted by five fresh fish at 5:31 PM on May 19, 2007


Jeanne writes "I started studying Japanese in high school, and after about nine years, I have some very strong intuitions about what sounds 'right' and what doesn't, but there are also a lot of cases where I don't have those intuitions."

Ditto. If you're around the language long enough, you get a feeling for when stuff just sounds wrong. It may take much longer to absorb than it would when you're a kid, but you do still absorb it.

My wife is, slowly, learning English, so I hear these kind of misordered adjectives all the time. Unfortunately, her level is still low enough that correcting them would just confuse her (We're still focussing on subject-verb agreement ("They are", not "they is")).
posted by Bugbread at 6:20 PM on May 19, 2007


goodnewsfortheinsane writes "A (non-sentient) story or book or film can surely be contemplative in nature, no? (Or brooding or pensive or lilting or carefree, etc.)"

Happy song, exuberant celebration, etc.

The issue is just that there are certain adjectives which have pairs, one for the causer, one for the affected, and others that don't.

For example: a movie which is uninteresting is a boring movie. When you watch it, you are bored. A ghost is scary. If I see it, I am scared.

However, there is no such construct for "contemplative". "Contemplativy"? As such, the word "contemplative" (or happy, or the like) does double-duty, serving to describe "that which makes one feel X" as well as "feeling X".
posted by Bugbread at 6:24 PM on May 19, 2007


I don't see how the word form figures into this, if that's what you mean: how about "commemorative poem", or "substantive rebuttal"?

Sorry to drag the dictionaries in, but OED and Dictionary.com/Random House both give definitions I personally can happily apply to, say, "prayer".
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 6:40 PM on May 19, 2007


Contemplative prayer as opposed to intercessory prayer. Is that any different a construction then subjective writing or elective surgery?
posted by voidcontext at 6:51 PM on May 19, 2007


Goodnewsfortheinsane:

Was that directed at me? If so, I don't understand. First, what about "commemorative poem" or "substantive rebuttal"? How do they relate?

Second: yes, the dictionary says "contemplative applies to words like 'prayer'". I'm also saying "contemplative applies to words like 'prayer'". The way you wrote it, it sounds like that was intended as a rebuttal, but I'm in agreement, so I don't follow how it is a rebuttal.
posted by Bugbread at 6:54 PM on May 19, 2007


I agree that with you and the author that the comma version is, in general, unnecessary. "Mean old man" is more succinct. My only counter-point is that sometimes "old, mean man" is more striking. It makes me think about the fact that he's an old man AND a mean man. "Old mean man" runs together a bit in my brain.

That's because it's not hackneyed like most cliched expressions (and "mean old man" is about as cliched as it gets). You'll find that most decent writers, when they have the time to self edit--as in, not necessarily when composing a fast comment somewhere like Metafilter--will avoid these sort of expressions whenever possible, because they've lost all meaning. See, for example, the expression "pulled at his/her heartstrings", a metaphor so ubiquitous in everyday language and children's literature that is really has lost any impact.

So you see "old, mean man" as a fresh take on an old thing, and it causes you to think about the expression more closely than you would "mean old man", which you would glance over and assuredly ignore apart from filing away the information, if pertinent.
posted by The God Complex at 7:17 PM on May 19, 2007


I never meant to imply that "contemplative prayer" is incorrect usage. It's not. It's correct. I meant that it's an clunky (aesthetically unpleasing) phrase. Naturally that's a subjective call.

To me, if there are two ways to say the same thing, one of which conjures up a concrete image and the other doesn't, it's always better to use the one that does -- even if it's wordier. People are sensual beings, so writing that makes us see, hear, touch, feel and taste will always be stronger and more evocative than abstractions. That's how I justify my pro-concrete rule, but ultimately it's a matter of taste.

Given my rule, I hate "contemplative prayer." I assume it means "a prayer that makes you contemplate" or "a prayer that you should use when you want to contemplate." It's a shorthand. But it conjures no image.

If you take it on a literal level, a prayer can not contemplate, because to contemplate, you need a brain. I guess I was misleading when I mentioned that earlier, because I know that's not what people mean when they talk about contemplative prayers. And when they talk about "gay films," they don't mean "films that are attracted to other films of the same gender." But in a way, I prefer those definitions to the real one. In a cartoony way, I can imagine a gay film or a contemplative prayer. I imagine a bunch of words that have formed themselves into the shape of The Thinker.

Part of my problem is with the word "contemplative." It's weak. You can't be comtemplative in some general way. You contemplate about something in particular. Or you don't. If you don't, your mind wanders or your mind is empty. In either of those cases, you're not being contemplative.

I wish I could come up with a better phrase than "contemplative prayer," but I can't because I don't know exactly what people mean when they say that. And, though I may be wrong, I suspect that they don't know either. If they did, I bet they'd use a more pointed phrase.

Maybe they mean "a prayer that makes people think about God" or "a prayer that makes different people think about different things." But I'm not sure.

"Contemplative prayer as opposed to intercessory prayer" just tells me that when you say a contemplative prayer, you're not asking God to do something specific. So I know what it's not; I just don't know what it is.

I do realize that we sometimes need abstract phrases to denote broad categories. When I use them (with regret), I try to provide a couple of concrete examples that attack the sense.
posted by grumblebee at 7:26 PM on May 19, 2007


So you see "old, mean man" as a fresh take on an old thing, and it causes you to think about the expression more closely than you would "mean old man", which you would glance over and assuredly ignore apart from filing away the information, if pertinent.

I completely agree with you, but I still think -- in addition -- that there's a subtle difference in meaning. An implied "and."

It's a littler clearer to me if I compare

"a sexy old lady"

with

"a sexy, old lady."

The former is a SEXY old-lady. The latter is a lady that's both sexy and old. But maybe I'm just eccentric to feel a difference.
posted by grumblebee at 7:30 PM on May 19, 2007


I think you're onto a common but subtle difference, grumblebee.
posted by five fresh fish at 7:40 PM on May 19, 2007


*offers a prayer -- a contemplative prayer -- that grumblebee never becomes his editor*

Also, on-topic, sort of: it's always surprising to me how much many of my students know about the English language (often much more than most native speakers (including most of the 'teachers' I meet here in Korea) seem to), even though, thanks to the disaster that is language education in this country, they have trouble actually using it.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 7:41 PM on May 19, 2007


stavrosthewonderchicken writes "Also, on-topic, sort of: it's always surprising to me how much many of my students know about the English language (often much more than most native speakers"

That's the way it is with anyone who has studied a language formally, though. You probably know a lot more about Korean than they do. I know that I know a lot more about Japanese than my wife, despite the fact that her Japanese is far better.
posted by Bugbread at 7:45 PM on May 19, 2007


*offers a prayer -- a contemplative prayer -- that grumblebee never becomes his editor*

No, that would be an intercessory prayer.
posted by grumblebee at 7:51 PM on May 19, 2007


The osascomp rule. Beautiful.
posted by peacay at 7:57 PM on May 19, 2007


No, that would be an intercessory prayer.

No, the prayer began: Let us contemplate the ways in which grumblebee is excessively prescriptive....
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 8:04 PM on May 19, 2007


The drawn-out, more deliberate "old, mean man" reminds me of the most extreme version I've seen of emphasizing adjectives: Tolkien's habit of sentences such as, "It was a difficult road, and a lonely and a long." (May not be the exact quote.)
posted by frobozz at 8:04 PM on May 19, 2007


Tolkien didn't really end the sentence with "and a long," did he?
posted by grumblebee at 8:07 PM on May 19, 2007


No, the prayer began: Let us contemplate the ways in which grumblebee is excessively prescriptive....

How about "Let's think about how grumblebee doles out needless rules and unsolicited advice"?
posted by grumblebee at 8:11 PM on May 19, 2007


stavrosthewonderchicken writes "No, the prayer began: Let us contemplate the ways in which grumblebee is excessively prescriptive...."

Wait...it was a group prayer? Or are you using the royal "we" when talking to god?

grumblebee writes "Tolkien didn't really end the sentence with 'and a long,' did he?"

Actually, that sentence ended with "cock", but frobozz's work filter deleted that word.
posted by Bugbread at 8:13 PM on May 19, 2007 [1 favorite]


The Tolkien quote reminds me of a creative-writing class I took in college. We were critiquing each other's papers, and I got hung up on a sentence that this one girl wrote. It was something like...

"The death of his father knocked him for a loop and shook him in his deep."

I'm pretty sure I knew what she meant: the deepest part of him, his depths, his soul... But it felt as if she'd written "I once saw a duck that."

A duck that WHAT? His deep WHAT?

In stavrosthewonderchicken's defense, everyone in the class, including the teacher, thought I was making a big deal over something unimportant. It's ten years later, and I still want to find out where that girl lives, sneak into her house, break into her closet, find the shoe box in she keeps her old papers, and write a proper end to that sentence.
posted by grumblebee at 8:33 PM on May 19, 2007 [2 favorites]


Wait...it was a group prayer?

I post on Metafilter with an audience of rapt fans and other interested observers, carefully arrayed in a semicircle behind me. On occasion, we'll bust out in a freestyle group prayer for the emancipation of quonsar or the eternal soul of mathowie or some such.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 8:45 PM on May 19, 2007


misha:
I think much of this--the order of the adjectives--is intuitive to those of us who love the written word. We know when something sounds wrong, but we don't know why.
Don't flatter yourself. I guarantee you that "big red firetruck rather than red big firetruck" is as strikingly obvious to the semi-literate hoi polloi and the riffraff as it is to you.

It's a "native speaker" thing, not an "I'm ever so smart" thing.
posted by Flunkie at 9:45 PM on May 19, 2007


Counterexample:

"Big bad dog" beats "bad big dog" hands down, in my opinion (any disagreements?).

But "big bad dog" is size followed by opinion, whereas the claimed order predicts opinion followed by size.

On the other hand, "bad little dog" beats "little bad dog". And similarly, "good little dog" beats "little big dog".

Strangely, neither "good big dog" nor "big good dog" sounds even remotely natural to me. And that's not because I have something against the concept - I've met plenty of dogs who are both good and big.
posted by Flunkie at 9:54 PM on May 19, 2007


The example that my Classical Chinese professor used to illustrate adjective order was "The red small house". Totally unnatural in English.

As for those verb-object nouns (pickpocket, cutpurse, cutthroat): I have one more to add: scofflaw.

Does anyone have any theories why all of these seem to center around bad/illegal things? Can anyone think of a verb-object noun in English that isn't an illegal/bad thing? I can think of one in Chinese right away: 相國 xiàngguó, "care for-country", or "Minister".

Also, I don't think "watchdog" counts, because "dog" is not the object.
posted by jiawen at 10:37 PM on May 19, 2007


jlawen:
Does anyone have any theories why all of these seem to center around bad/illegal things? Can anyone think of a verb-object noun in English that isn't an illegal/bad thing?
Breakfast.
posted by Flunkie at 10:42 PM on May 19, 2007


Also, I love the title of this thread.
posted by jiawen at 10:42 PM on May 19, 2007


Breakfast.
Breakwater, too.
posted by Flunkie at 10:46 PM on May 19, 2007


Catchall. Sawzall. And probably other "-all" words.

Killjoy.

Spendthrift.
posted by Flunkie at 11:11 PM on May 19, 2007


Scarecrow.

Lickspittle.

Lackwit. Lackland. Lackluster.

OK, that's it, I'm off to become a gobed.
posted by Flunkie at 11:23 PM on May 19, 2007


Spendthrift? Is "thrift" the object of "spend"?

Is "lackluster" a noun?

Scarecrow, breakfast, breakwater and the "-all" words are all positive, though, or at least neutral. Interesting. Thanks, all! (Thanksall!)
posted by jiawen at 11:32 PM on May 19, 2007


I'm off to become a gobed.
But wait, there's more!

Turncoat.
posted by Flunkie at 11:40 PM on May 19, 2007


jiawen:
Spendthrift? Is "thrift" the object of "spend"?
Yes. "Thrift", at least archaically, means "savings". A spendthrift is someone who spends (too much of) his savings.
Is "lackluster" a noun?
Well, usually it's an adjective, but yes, it's sometimes used as a noun. OED gives the following example:
The eyes have now a languor and a glassiness, a lack-lustre not easy to be described.
posted by Flunkie at 11:44 PM on May 19, 2007


Oh, and I realize that "killjoy" and "lickspittle" are not exactly positive, but I interpreted your "illegal/bad" to basically mean "bad and illegal" (rather than "bad or illegal"), since that's what all of the "scofflaw" type examples were.
posted by Flunkie at 11:46 PM on May 19, 2007


Turnspit.

Skinflint (again, negative, but not illegal).

OK, now I really am going to be a gobed.
posted by Flunkie at 12:10 AM on May 20, 2007


They spent the night in the forest. [dark, cold, threatening]

When I teach this in English class, I find the above example very tricky. Adjectives are usually arranged from subjective opinion to objective fact; but here, in my view, the music of the language overrides regular adjective order. "Dark, cold, threatening forest" rolls of the tongue easier than, "threatening, cold, dark forest". What do you think?
posted by Tarn at 6:32 AM on May 20, 2007


Asspirate?
posted by cortex at 6:36 AM on May 20, 2007


What I really want is this post for other languages.

....as for commas: punctuation has nothing to do with grammar, it's purely arbitrary. The ancients didn't bother with it at all, and they had just as much grammar as we do.

When did punctuation enter the scene? And what category, if not grammar, does it fall into? (Seeking knowledge here, not shoulder chipping.) Clearly it has its uses, as when Bishop Orleton wished ambiguity to cover his backside. (That story's so good that it's entered Hungarian history as well.)
posted by IndigoJones at 8:06 AM on May 20, 2007


grumblebee: Tolkien didn't really end the sentence with "and a long," did he?

Yes:
It was a hard path and a dangerous path, a crooked way and a lonely and a long. (The Hobbit, Ch 4)

Also: "I have had a hard life and a long;" (Lord of the Rings, Book II Ch 2)

I don't think there's anything wrong with ending on an adjective per se, eg "a crooked way, lonely and long." wouldn't seem odd (cf Coleridge's "music loud and long"). Tolkien was fond of archaic inversions in places, I wonder if he is just using a phrasing that has fallen out of fashion, such that it's not automatic for a modern reader to fill in the gaps: "a crooked way and a lonely [way] and a long [way]".
posted by wilko at 8:25 AM on May 20, 2007


I don't think there's anything wrong with ending on an adjective per se, eg "a crooked way, lonely and long."

Nope, nothing wrong with that.

The "a" makes all the difference: you can't just say "a long." A long WHAT?

But you may be right. MAYBE. Maybe it's an archaic tune of phrase. If so, I'd like to see other examples.
posted by grumblebee at 8:39 AM on May 20, 2007


They spent the night in the forest. [dark, cold, threatening]

When I teach this in English class, I find the above example very tricky. Adjectives are usually arranged from subjective opinion to objective fact; but here, in my view, the music of the language overrides regular adjective order. "Dark, cold, threatening forest" rolls of the tongue easier than, "threatening, cold, dark forest". What do you think?


I think, in many instances, if you're not simply retreading the over-used cliched expressions of our language, the more important thing is often to include the most vital piece of information as the ultimate one. If the point of your sentence is to portray how threatening the forest is, then using it as the ultimate adjective makes the most sense.

Similarly, as a counterexample to "small red house" I would suggest that the reason "red small house" seems to unnatural is simply because it's such a simple--and frequently used--expression, one we'd even read in the earliest literature we read as children. However, would you blanch at this: On the corner of Westhurst Lane and Pendragon Trail, just a few hundred meters from the edge of Herod forest--a dark, cold, threatening place--there was a house, a grey, dilapidated, small A-frame dwelling, so small that four of the five people that lived within its sagging walls shared a room; the other lived in the cramped arch of the attic.

In that case, the most important feature of the sentence is the size of the dwelling, as it will be the feature expounded upon in the next clause of the sentence. Since the construction is less familiar, your mind doesn't automatically fill in the sentence as it expects it to finish (and thus you aren't "surprised" by the order of the adjectives).
posted by The God Complex at 11:06 AM on May 20, 2007


"Dark, cold, threatening forest" rolls of the tongue easier than, "threatening, cold, dark forest"

To my ear,
the cold, dark, threatening forest
sounds far better than either alternative.
posted by five fresh fish at 11:24 AM on May 20, 2007


Er... and I dislike cold more than dark.

Perhaps the natural ordering is to place the most-emphatic/most-important/most-personal words first and last, and the less important stuff in the middle.
posted by five fresh fish at 11:25 AM on May 20, 2007


I wonder if, all else aside, the specific case of "cold, dark" sounds good because of the association with the fixed phrase "cold dead [hands]"?
posted by cortex at 11:27 AM on May 20, 2007


To my mind, the order is not arbitrary but adjectives which are more likely to form a compound phrase with the noun or rather be an innate feature of the object rather than a transient feature.

An obvious example is "sleeping bag." You can file "sleeping" under purpose of the "bag" but for most people its ridiculous to split it up (e.g. "sleeping red bag") because its more of a compound than a modifier.

Similarly, if there are any other Spanish language speakers here, the adjectives closer to the Ser form appear closer to the noun and the Estar forms are farther away. So "origin, material" are Ser qualities whereas "shape, color" are Estar qualities.
posted by vacapinta at 3:16 PM on May 20, 2007 [1 favorite]


I remember reading a joke article many, many years ago (before internet so don't bother searching) about a society that was going to reverse the normal English word order for phrases like "inside out" and "upside down".

I can't remember what their motive was, but it seemed like a good idea at the time. Sometimes we've got to shake out the cobwebs a little.
posted by eye of newt at 8:24 PM on May 20, 2007



"Dark, cold, threatening forest" rolls of the tongue easier than, "threatening, cold, dark forest"


Actually, I quite like the Tolkienesque "a forest, threatening, dark, and cold." Something about the rhythm...I always thought, actually, that (aside from the archaic-language aspect) Tolkien was using that formation to try to set up a specific emotional resonance to his words. It makes you draw out the 'lonely' and 'long', rather than skipping them, which is probably what a lot of people do with strings of adjectives in long novels (I do, anyway). You end up with kind of a plaintive feel to it.


The "a" makes all the difference: you can't just say "a long." A long WHAT?

But you may be right. MAYBE. Maybe it's an archaic tune of phrase. If so, I'd like to see other examples.


But unlike the "shook him in his deep" example is that there is already a subject ("way"). And since it's only a few words away from 'long' I don't think it jolts the ear that much.

I wonder if, all else aside, the specific case of "cold, dark" sounds good because of the association with the fixed phrase "cold dead [hands]"?

Purely to quibble, 'dark, cold' sounds better to me than 'cold, dark' because '-old' is a nicer sound than '-ark.' I would rather have that as the last sound in my mind at the end of a sentence or phrase, the way people save the best food for the last part of a meal.
posted by frobozz at 9:49 PM on May 20, 2007


I think vacapinta is on to something here. There are cases where an adjective is actually part of the noun phrase which will pull it out of the chain of adjectives towards the noun. Also, once we are at three adjectives, I really begin to not have an innate sense for it like I do for two.

Also, I will be up all night trying to think of positive verb-nouns, which will lead to quite the sleepmorning tomorrow.
posted by Rock Steady at 7:56 PM on May 21, 2007


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