science of us

The Unexpectedly Existential Roots of Adjective Order

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Why do you long for a nice hot cup of tea on a rainy day and not a hot nice cup? Why would you pair that with a huge fuzzy blanket and not a fuzzy huge blanket? Why does the quick brown fox jump over the lazy dog and not a brown quick one? It’s because of the English language’s unseen and mysterious rule of adjective order. According to linguist Mark Forsyth, the order goes opinion-size-age-shape-color-origin-material-purpose Noun. “You can have a lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife,” Forsyth writes in The Elements of Eloquence. “But if you mess with that word order in the slightest you’ll sound like a maniac. It’s an odd thing that every English speaker uses that list, but almost none of us could write it out.”

Forsyth’s insight — which was recently highlighted by blogger Jason Kottke — probably applies to most all native English speakers (unless they spent a couple years teaching the language abroad). But if you’re learning English as a foreign language, you have to commit it to memory. One way would be through rote memorization of those categories, and unfortunately, OSASCOMP isn’t the most memorable of acronyms. But it may help to know the logic underlying the ordering. And this is where the plot thickens.

As Katy Waldman sleuthed out for Slate two years ago, adjective order isn’t a just quirk of the English language. Adjective-ordering restrictions, as linguists catchily call them, happen similarly in tongues the world over, from Japanese to Russian to Indonesian. While there are competing theories as to why, the leading one contends that adjective order is a matter of innateness — the closer you get to the noun, the more the adjective speaks to the essential nature of that noun. Take the aforementioned huge fuzzy blanket, for example: the size has less to do with blanketness than the fuzziness. Relatedly, while the temperature of the tea is more crucial to what it means to be tea than how pleasant it is. Waldman mentions a seminal 1971 study where college students were asked to rate how acceptable different statements with scrambled adjective orders were, and the researchers found that strings that followed the rule of innateness were better-liked than others. “For example,” Walman observes, “‘My sister bought a wondrous blue-green Hawaiian gecko’ would earn higher marks than ‘My sister bought a Hawaiian blue-green wondrous gecko.’” It pleases the ear to have adjectives placed like concentric circles, radiating out from the center of the noun.

To me, what’s magical about this is that it shows how much language, a technology that helped humans grow into humanity, remains a mystery to we moderns. Like archaeologists sifting through Sumerian cities for clues to ancient architecture, linguists unearth the structures underlying the way we speak. While it’s hard to articulate, there is logic there: Nouns and adjective are like friends — the ones who share the most in common can always be found close together.

The Unexpectedly Existential Roots of Adjective Order