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Rules no one teaches but everyone learns

Native speakers follow language rules they don't even know they know.

By Ruth Walker / May 18, 2007



Time, manner, place. Time, manner, place. That was my mnemonic when, as a high school student, I struggled to learn the rules for ordering German adverbs. "I love in summer with you down the Rhine to sail." The time phrase ("in summer") is followed by indicators of manner ("with you") and place ("down the Rhine").

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It seemed utterly wrong. The only way through seemed to be to memorize the rules. Hmph! We don't have rules like this in English – or do we?

Hmm. Does the fact that this sounds so wrong in English suggest perhaps that there are rules there, too – just different from those of German?

In the years since, I've realized that this hunch was right. English and, I assume, other languages, are full of rules that no one teaches – not to native speakers anyway – but that everyone still learns.

Take a sentence like this: "In the park today, we saw six gorgeous immaculately restored antique flame-red Italian racing cars." That's quite a string of adjectives, but they're placed in order according to a hierarchy that leaves "time, manner, place" in the dust.

This whole question was the focus of the "tip of the week" from the newsletter Copy Editor a few weeks ago. A reader had written in: "I deal with a lot of non-native English speakers, and a question frequently arises as to what order to use for a string of adjectives or adverbs. We (editors) know to say '21 large green tables' but why not 'green large 21 tables'? or '21 green large tables'? Is there a rule for this?" Wendalyn Nichols, editor of Copy Editor, responded, "There is indeed a standard order for adjectives, and you'll find it described in dictionaries and textbooks for learners of English as a second language."

Ms. Nichols reproduced a chart showing a hierarchy of modifiers: determiner, quality, size, age, color, origin, material. She gives some examples: a colorful new silk scarf, that silver Japanese car. Some other such charts have a hierarchy that goes like this:

Opinion :: size :: age :: shape :: color :: origin :: material :: purpose.

Not all noun phrases have adjectives from each of these columns. But this is the order they should be in. "Little old lady" and "angry young man" are set phrases that illustrate this idiomatic order. "Little" (size) comes before "old" (age). "Angry" is an example of what the charts call an opinion adjective. And if these modifiers are in the right order (unlike, say, "young, angry man"), they don't need commas.

I don't mean to sound cranky about commas. But too many of them together are sometimes an indication of prose not well thought through and not flowing gracefully enough.

Punctuation is a form of signage. I'm not against signs. But an excess of signage in a public space such as an airport is often a sign of poor design, or an attempt to superimpose some kind of new order on the natural traffic flows of a building. ("This door is not an entrance.")

I find that if I calm down and reorder words, I can often avoid some punctuation. "His battered old canvas fishing hat" is the phrase usage expert Wilson Follett uses to demonstrate what he calls "superposed" adjectives. I think of them as layered adjectives. We start with the noun "hat." "Fishing" tells you fundamentally what kind of hat this is. ("Purpose" in the taxonomy above.) "Canvas" is from the "material" column. "Old" represents the "age" column. "Battered" is a "quality" adjective on Nichols's hierarchy, or an "opinion" one on some others. ("Battered?" Whose hat are you calling "battered"?) "His" is a determiner.

I had no idea I knew all these rules, but here they are.

This weekly column appears with links at http://weblogs.csmonitor.com/verbal_energy.

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