Order, Order!

At a recent Toastmasters meeting, my friend Jay related how his school would periodically take his entire class on expeditions in and around the Southwest. On one jaunt, he described the cooks’ preparations for supper as they set out “five giant copper kettles.” I was the Grammarian that day and remarked—favorably—on his use of that descriptive phrase. In addition to use of alliteration, the phase just seemed “right.’

A few days later, Facebook led me to the Twitter feed of @MattAndersonNYT and his tweet entitled, Things native English speakers know, but don’t know we know. In his post, he cites The Elements of Eloquence: How to Turn the Perfect English Phase, by Mark Forsyth @Inkyfool:

Forsyth Word Order

I have to admit that when experts say things like, “It must be absolutely this way,” it gets on my nerves, especially on something as malleable as language, but Forsyth has a good point. Some word combinations sound right and if you change the order, it’s off somehow.

Like all good rules, there are variations. Here’s a similar list I found online:

  • Quantity
  • Value/opinion
  • Size
  • Temperature
  • Age
  • Shape
  • Color
  • Origin
  • Material

Did my friend Jay follow the rule with “five giant copper kettles?” Yes, he did, and I now know why it sounded so good.

Five/ Quantity—Giant/Size—Copper/Material

Notice that the rule doesn’t say you have to include all the adjective types, but the ones you do use sound better when used in a certain order. “Five copper giant kettles” might work if you’re describing how to boil giants (!) but that’s another tale. “Giant copper five kettles?” “Copper five giant kettles?” Nope. Those just sound silly.

The reason for the “wrongness” of a malformed adjectival phrase is likely ingrained in the exemplars we all used to learn language. Over the course of centuries, the available literature we use to train young minds, whether Cat in the Hat or Hamlet, acquired and cemented these acceptable word patterns, so much so that we absorb the unwritten rules without thinking about it.

The next time you are writing an essay or preparing a speech, remember Forsyth’s word order commandment and apply the rubric faithfully. Your message will be well-received.

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