That old bad rule-seeking behaviour

Linguistics is great for making you aware of things you were already doing consistently but weren’t consciously aware of. In fact, that’s the basic point of several subfields of linguistics. There are a few particularly memorable examples that one learns in the course of an education in linguistics. One of these is the order of adjectives: we have a standard order for adjectives when there are several before a noun. We may not be analytically aware of it, but if someone says “a red big balloon” it will sound wrong.

If you’re a linguistics student, you take that as more data, and the point of such data is to use it to help you figure out why we tend to do that, and to do that you have to see what exceptions there are and sort out what the various inputs and influences are. It’s explanation-seeking behaviour.

If, on the other hand, you’re not a linguist but an ordinary English speaker, you may approach English with an eye to finding out what is right and what is wrong. We learn that good grammar is the great sorter, and we treat errors as evidence of flawed character and intellect. And so when you encounter a new fact about the language, you may well be inclined to turn that fact into a rule. It’s rule-seeking behaviour.

So when, recently, a book came out pointing out (in passing) the standard order of adjectives to the lay masses, many people were all “mind=blown” about it. The author, Mark Forsyth, stated confidently that the order absolutely has to be opinion-size-age-shape-colour-origin-material-purpose-noun, and “if you mess with that word order in the slightest you’ll sound like a maniac.”

Linguists, of course, quickly critiqued this overstatement; read Language Log for some responses. But non-linguists didn’t just say “Wow, I didn’t know I was doing that”; many of them were writing down that order and determining that any deviation from it must be wrong. I didn’t see any instances of people telling other people “You didn’t put it in this order, so you’re wrong,” but I did see instances of “What’s the correct order? I don’t want to get this wrong!” English speakers, you see, are in general convinced that they’re always making mistakes and doing things wrong, and they want to know the right way to do them for those instances where they’re going to be judged. (Ironically, many of them think one of those instances is when they’re talking to a linguist. Listen, honey, whatever you say or don’t say is great with us; it’s all data.)

So I feel I need to say this: There is no official correct order of adjectives you must adhere to. If something sounds wrong, then adjust it, but if it doesn’t sound wrong, it’s not wrong.

In fact, we vary the order depending on context, priority, and sets of words that we’re used to having together in a certain order. Consider a nice big old round red Spanish silk riding hood. Try moving any of the words and it may sound wrong (but not like a maniac!), although big old nice Spanish red round silk riding hood doesn’t sound awful to me. You might also get away with Spanish red silk. Some orders are more weighted than others. But change nice in the original phrase to good. Suddenly it doesn’t work as well: not good big old but good old big will sound better because of collocation – good old travels together. Also, any compound noun will defeat the word order. You have a tawny giant tortoise, for instance, because giant tortoise is a thing. And it will be different in what it can convey than giant tawny tortoise. We can even vary the order to adjust the sense: a little dumb ass is different from a dumb little ass because dumb ass is a common collocation.

So if you come up with a string of adjectives and it doesn’t sound right, just change the order so it sounds right. Make things that go together go together. Do not start overthinking it: don’t say “this one must go before that one because that is more common or more essential,” as is a common explanation for the ordering. Go with what sounds right. Afterwards, you can use that as interesting data to tell you what you see as more essential, but do not arrange the order by asking yourself which is more essential, because you could be wrong. For instance, we would all say big red building and not red big building, even though the building can be repainted more easily than it can have its size changed. And yet even that order can be changed in some circumstances: for instance, we use little closer to the noun to express an attitude towards it: I’m not gonna drive that purple little car of yours all over town communicates something not altogether the same as I’m not gonna drive that little purple car of yours all over town.

The number one thing we should learn from this, then, is that in general people aren’t fully aware of how their language works and yet they make it work, and when people start trying to analyze it and come up with prescriptions they very often miss things and get things wrong. The most poplar grammatical cudgels are based on thick-headed simple-minded misunderstandings of how and why we do things, and on grotesque overapplication of rules. That’s why they’re used as cudgels: not everyone follows them because they aren’t real rules, they’re made up.

Mistrust imposed rules, especially inflexible ones. You’ve been using English your whole life. If someone tells you that something that sounds right to you is wrong, and that something that sounds odd to you is right, they’re probably just wrong. And if your analysis tells you that a sentence that sounds awkward to you is right while one that sounds good is wrong, question your analysis. If you love the language and want to understand how it works and use it effectively, engage in explanation-seeking behaviour, not rule-seeking behaviour.

2 responses to “That old bad rule-seeking behaviour

  1. Reblogged this on KathyPowers1 and commented:

  2. Years ago a friend and I collaborated on a style manual update. We disagreed from time to time, especially as to the subjects on which people wowuld seek guidance, and this was one of them. I Was the sceptic on this one; he thought that the principle was helful somshould be provided. Trouble was, we kept unearthing various principles and corresponding exceptions. We agreed to differ on the matter of the green ugly parrot, or was that the ugly green parrot? He left the room briefly, and returned to find me giggling over a bottle of Chinese soy sauce I spotted from the kitchen table. i told him he had a green ugly parrot on his fridge – it was labelled ‘Soy, superior sauce’.

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