Ordering Adjectives

Hmm. You’d think I’d have already known that adjectives in English follow a precise, well-defined order:

Opinion-size-age-shape-colour-origin-material-purpose-noun. So you can have a lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife. But if you mess with that word order in the slightest you’ll sound like a maniac.

But then again, maybe not. After all, according to Mark Forsyth’s new book The Elements of Eloquence (reviewed here by Christopher Howse), apparently native English speakers have internalized the pattern. We know what’s barbarous and what’s not.

But now that I’m aware of the pattern, can’t I use the information? Maybe shift things around for effect? Well, no: the point of internalizing the pattern is that you already know how to do that too. There’s no gain in knowing what the pattern is. Your ear is enough.

That said, I’m sure I’d have put this little tidbit to good use when I was a teacher of English as a second language. But now? As a writer? Merely more useless knowledge, I suppose.

Ah, English. Has there ever been a more little cute maddening language?

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