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The language rule you never think about but always get right
What’s going on with this strange language quirk?
Why does “the brown quick fox jumps over the lazy dog” sound so wrong?
At the Daily Dot, we hope you’re having a relaxing, long, warm Labor Day weekend. Wait. Should it be warm, relaxing, long Labor Day weekend?
Apparently the order in which English speakers string modifiers is very important to English “sounding right,” but it’s so intuitive that we barely understand what, exactly, that order is. But that doesn’t mean no one has noticed:
That excerpt came from The Elements of Eloquence: How to Turn the Perfect English Phrase by Mark Forsyth. But it hits on something that linguists actually took a very long time to really figure out.
According to a 2014 Slate article on the subject, “Simply put: Adjectives grow ‘increasingly permanent as attributes’ as they tend noun-ward.” In other words, calling my cat a “fat Siamese cat,” denotes that she is a cat of the Siamese breed who is also fat. But calling her a “Siamese fat cat,” can mean that she is a cat that is from Thailand (which Europeans and Americans used to call Siam) who is fat.
But, Slate writer Katy Waldman notes, things get trickier when reordering modifiers leads to a semantically identical meaning. To use her example, a “big red barn” means the same exact thing as a “red big barn,” but the former sounds right and the latter sounds wrong.
In the order of modifiers, size comes before color. But Waldman points to a few other examples that break the rules. “Big stinky fart,” for instance, puts the size before the opinion, a supposed linguistic no-no but here we are.
It just goes to show that few rules in linguistics are hard and fast. Yet this rule crops up in almost all languages, not just English. It may be that the rules get broken to emphasize certain things, highlighting the original point that putting a modifier closer to a noun helps portray how intrinsic that feature is to the object.
Cynthia McKelvey covered the health and science for the Daily Dot until 2017. She earned a graduate degree in science communication from the University of California Santa Cruz in 2014. Her work has appeared in Gizmodo, Scientific American Mind, and Mic.com.