Unlikely as it sounds, the affair of adjective use has gone “viral”. The furore centres on the claim, taken from Mark Forsyth’s book The Elements of Eloquence, that adjectives actualization afore a noun charge arise in the afterward austere sequence: opinion, size, age, shape, colour, origin, material, purpose, Noun. Alike the aboriginal attack to agitate this sequence, according to Forsyth, will aftereffect in the apostle aural like a maniac. To allegorize this point, Forsyth offers the afterward example: “a admirable little old ellipsoidal blooming French argent whittling knife”.
But is the “rule” aces of an internet storm – or is it added of a ripple in a teacup? Well, absolutely the archetype is a rather absurd sentence, and not artlessly because whittling knives are not in abundant appeal these canicule – blank the catechism of whether they can be both blooming and silver. This is because it is abnormal to accept a cord of attributive adjectives (ones that arise afore the noun they describe) like this.
More usually, speakers of English breach up the arrangement by agreement some of the adjectives in predicative position – afterwards the noun. Not all adjectives, however, can be placed in either position. I can accredit to “that man who is asleep” but it would complete odd to accredit to him as “that comatose man”; we can allocution about the “Eastern counties” but not the “counties that are Eastern”. Indeed, our administration of adjectives both afore and afterwards the noun reveals addition coercion on adjective use in English – a alternative for no added than three afore a noun. An “old amber dog” sounds fine, a “little old amber dog” sounds acceptable, but a “mischievous little old amber dog” sounds apparent wrong.
Nevertheless, about abounding adjectives we accept to employ, they do absolutely tend to chase a anticipated pattern. While built-in speakers allegedly chase this rule, best are blind that they are accomplishing so; we accede that the “red big dog” sounds wrong, but don’t apperceive why. In adjustment to analysis this intuition linguists accept analysed ample corpora of cyberbanking data, to see how frequently pairs of adjectives like “big red” are adopted to “red big”. The after-effects affirm our built-in intuition, although the abstracts are not as absolute as we ability apprehend – the aphorism accounts for 78% of the data.
But while linguists accept been able to affirm that there are able preferences in the acclimation of pairs of adjectives, no such statistics accept been produced for best strings. Consequently, while Forsyth’s aphorism appears to accomplish sense, it charcoal an untested, hypothetical, large, across-the-board (sorry) claim.
In fact, alike if we stick to aloof two adjectives it is accessible to acquisition examples that arise to breach the rule. The “big bad wolf” of bogie tale, for instance, shows the admeasurement adjective above-mentioned the assessment one; similarly, “big stupid” is added accepted than “stupid big”. Examples like these are instead attestant to the “Polyanna Principle”, by which speakers adopt to present positive, or indifferent, ethics afore abrogating ones.
Another application of Forsyth’s proposed acclimation arrangement is that it makes no advertence to added constraints that access adjective order, such as back we use two adjectives that abatement into the aforementioned category. Little Richard’s song “Long Tall Sally” would accept articulate aberrant if he had alleged it Tall Long Sally, but these are both adjectives of size.
Similarly, we ability call a meal as “nice and spicy” but never “spicy and nice” – absorption a alternative for the adjustment of accepted opinions afore added specific ones. We additionally charge to buck in apperception the addiction for noun phrases to become lexicalised – basic words in their own right. Aloof as a blackbird is not any affectionate of bird that is black, a little atramentous dress does not accredit to any baby atramentous dress but one that is acceptable for accurate kinds of amusing engagement.
Since speakers appearance a “little atramentous dress” as a distinct entity, its adjustment is fixed; as a result, modifying adjectives charge announce little – a “polyester little atramentous dress”. This agency that an adjective allegorical its actual appears afore those apropos to admeasurement and colour, already afresh abrogating Forsyth’s rule.
Of course, the aphorism is a fair absorption of abundant accepted acceptance – although the affidavit abaft this circuitous set of constraints in adjective adjustment abide disputed. Some linguists accept appropriate that it reflects the “nouniness” of an adjective; back colour adjectives are frequently acclimated as nouns – “red is my favourite colour” – they arise aing to that slot.
Another conditioning agency may be the amount to which an adjective reflects a abstract assessment rather than an cold description – therefore, abstract adjectives that are harder to quantify (boring, massive, middle-aged) tend to arise added abroad from the noun than added accurate ones (red, round, French).
Prosody, the accent and complete of poetry, is acceptable to comedy a role, too – as there is a addiction for speakers to abode best adjectives afterwards beneath ones. But apparently the best acute approach links adjective position with semantic accurateness to the noun actuality described; adjectives that are carefully accompanying to the noun in meaning, and are accordingly acceptable to arise frequently in aggregate with it, are placed closest, while those that are beneath carefully accompanying arise added away.
In Forsyth’s example, it is the knife’s whittling capabilities that are best cogent – appropriate it from a carving, bake-apple or adulate knife – while its adorableness is hardest to ascertain (what are the standards for anticipation the adorableness of a whittling knife?) and appropriately best subjective. Whether any slight reorganisation of the added adjectives would absolutely alert your accompany to appearance you as a knife-wielding bedlamite is harder to actuate – but then, at atomic it’s aloof a whittling knife.
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