Monday, September 5, 2016

Order, Please!

A recent Facebook post pointed out that when multiple adjectives precede a noun, we instinctively put them in a fixed order, depending on their function. First comes the determiner, denoting the number and specific designation of the noun: “a,” “the,” “your,” “some,” “few,” “several,” “fourteen,” “thousands,” etc. Next come adjectives that express an opinion (“good,” “bad,” “wonderful,” “terrible,” etc., followed by adjectives relating to size, age, shape, color, origin, material, and purpose.

For example we might say: My lovely little old curved green French silver whittling knife. Rearranging the order of those adjectives is likely to result in something very peculiar sounding: My old lovely green French little whittling silver curved knife.

Here are some other examples whose word order you may change at your peril!

o   That charming small 18th-century oval dark brown Italian mahogany knick-knack shelf.  

o   Your handsome large new square red English walnut dining table.

o   Three ugly big old round orange German plastic coffee pots.

o   Two dozen useful thick new legal-size yellow Lithuanian parchment note pads.

Of course, this prescribed word order can sometimes be altered to good effect, as in Shelley’s description of George III in his sonnet “England 1819”:   “An old, mad, blind, despised, and dying King.”

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou knows a lot of adjectives, but he has never quite figured out the right order in which to put them:

              A rich, old, fat, and greedy miser
             Grew much older but no wiser.
             And he, when all was done and said,
             Was rich, old, greedy, fat and dead. 


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