How did we not know about the adjective rule?
Word people pride themselves on knowing the most subtle grammar rules. That’s why so many of us were shocked recently by an observant author who brought the unwritten adjective rule to light.
The Unwritten Adjective Rule
The unwritten adjective rule prescribes the order in which adjectives should be listed by attribute category.
“Adjectives in English absolutely have to be written in this order: opinion-size-age-shape-colour-origin-material-purpose Noun.”
Former BBC Culture editor Matthew Anderson tweeted a photo from “The Elements of Eloquence: How to Turn the Perfect English Phrase” by Mark Forsyth.
Things native English speakers know, but don’t know we know: pic.twitter.com/Ex0Ui9oBSL
— Matthew Anderson (@MattAndersonNYT) September 3, 2016
Forsyth says, “So you can have a lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife.” Now, that’s way more adjectives than we would ever suggest stringing together into a single sentence. But the order feels correct. Rearranging the words does not.
Green Great Dragons
As evidence of the adjective rule, Forsyth explains that, “as size comes before colour, green great dragons can’t exist.” This construction creates dissonance in English speakers’ ears. Something just doesn’t sound right.
The internet has responded by evaluating whether the adjective rule holds up in every instance. Some have suggested that the rule is true about 78% of the time.
Simon Horbin lists several reasons why we break the adjective rule. First, some adjective-noun phrases act like a compound noun. Thus, it’s possible to have a “polyester little black dress” (material, size, color). Second, the Polyanna Principle holds that people prefer to put positive or indifferent qualities before negative ones. Third, there’s prosody—the rhythm and pattern of sounds in language. Speakers tend to say shorter adjectives before longer adjectives. But despite these exceptions, the unwritten adjective rule is compelling in most instances. Why is that?
Why Use This Order?
We have our own opinion at ProEdit. The categories in the adjective rule generally move from subjective qualities toward objective qualities. “Opinion,” “size,” and “age” are more subjective than “shape” and “color” are. “Origin” and “material” are more concrete. Now, some might philosophize that “purpose,” the final category in Forsyth’s list, is the most subjective attribute of all. But we think that “purpose” is a noun’s most intrinsic attribute. That’s why “purpose” deserves the coveted final spot before the noun.
What Do You Think?
Do you agree with Forsyth’s adjective rule? Do you think our explanation of the order is a good one?
Tell us your opinion!