Alibris Secondhand Books Standard

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

hierarchy of english adjectives

In an essay titled Rules no one teaches but everyone learns, Ruth Walker of the Christian Science Monitor says:

Time, manner, place. Time, manner, place.

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

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?

It turns out that we do, and that they are much more complex than time, manner, place.

In 1899, when seven-year-old J.R.R. Tolkien wrote a short story about a dragon, his mother objected to his phrase "green great dragon." She told him the phrase should be "great green dragon". This gave the young Tolkien a desire to penetrate the mysteries of word order, which led to a lifelong fascination with language.

Today, textbooks for teaching English as a second language explain the entire hierarchy:

  • Opinion
  • Size
  • Age
  • Shape
  • Color
  • Origin
  • Material
  • Purpose

Whenever two adjectives are used to modify the same noun, they must appear in the proper order according to the hierarchy, or be separated by commas. A noun will not likely have all eight categories, but the ones it does have must be in the correct order. That's why "green great dragon" sounded wrong to J.R.R. Tolkien's mother. It's why we say "grumpy old man" or "big yellow car" rather than "old grumpy man" or "yellow big car". All native English speakers learn this, but not in the classroom.

That I find this fascinating probably makes me a language nerd. If you've read this far, you're probably a language nerd, too. Welcome to the club.



At 4/29/2009 8:54 PM, Blogger Blake said...

The ugly, big, old, cube-ish, green, Norwegian, polyester, [purpose] dragon? That's technically correct? Can someone give me an example of a purpose in the form of an adjective? I'm not sure what that means or how that works. Also, I'm not sure what that has to do with time, manner, place sentence structure. I'm curious if English has any real hierarchy for its sentence structure. The hierarchy for noun modification seems more or less correct.

At 4/29/2009 8:57 PM, Blogger Blake said...

Oh wait, I think I get it. It means the ugly, big, old, cube-ish, green, Norwegian, polyester, fire-breathing dragon!

At 4/29/2009 9:10 PM, Blogger BruceA said...

Actually, you can leave out the commas if you're following the correct word order: The ugly big old cube-ish green Norwegian polyester fire-breathing dragon. That's grammatically correct; or it would be if it weren't a sentence fragment.

At 5/02/2009 6:28 PM, Blogger Steve Hayes said...

Yes, I'm a language nerd, a language pedantic nerd.

At 5/03/2009 11:11 AM, Blogger truevyne said...

Yes, I'm a language nerd too.

At 5/03/2009 6:38 PM, Blogger BruceA said...

Maybe I'll start doing more of this type of post.

At 5/27/2009 9:05 PM, Blogger the booklady said...

Language nerd here too. That was fascinating and fun! Didn't know there were rules like that, but now I want to write the list down and keep it somewhere safe for the next time I start listing adjectives. ☺ ☺ ☺

At 5/30/2009 1:01 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is either of these more correct.
It seems to me.....
To me it seems.....

At 5/31/2009 12:24 AM, Blogger BruceA said...

Anonymous -

I'm answering this in a separate post.


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home