A lovely blue Italian scarf or an Italian blue lovely scarf? And why – Adjective order

There are many language rules that native speakers of English know without knowing they know it. Confused? In the Academic blog of the month, our Director of Studies Marianne Arake talks about one of those grammar rules that is innate in native speakers but that English language students have to painfully learn and memorise – Adjective order.

 adjective order

If you’re talking about Mars with a native speaker and suddenly say something about the ‘green little men’ that live there, they may give you a puzzled look. Why? Because it sounds bonkers! What you should say is ‘little green men’ Again, why? Because when describing a noun with multiple adjectives there is an order to follow and if you mess that up in any way it will sound, so, so wrong.

Early in September this year, the BBC Culture editor Matthew Anderson tweeted a paragraph from a book called The Elements of Eloquence by Mark Forsyth’s and it went viral on Social Media. Here it is:

Screen Shot 2017-12-07 at 14.04.14

For native speakers this sounded very exciting indeed. They all know that there are rules they can’t explain but sound right, but this one in particular which doesn’t involve tense or time or verbs surprised many. Suddenly they could understand why that film absolutely cannot be called My Greek Big Fat Wedding (ugh, doesn’t that sound weird?) but it must be My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

Of course language learners come across this rule in their English journey and must memorise this order so that they can be understood with ease. Now imagine how difficult it is if there are 8 adjectives to describe one jacket. That ugly big old round blue American leather waterproof jacket. Woah! We feel for you language learners, we feel for you.

Now as it is common in the English language, there are exceptions. You may remember those fairy tales from childhood and notice that the Little Red Riding Hood perfectly obeys the rule but the Big Bad Wolf is not in the correct order. Why? Well, in fact, the Big Bad Wolf is just obeying another great linguistic law that every native English speaker knows, but doesn’t know that they know. And it’s the same reason that you’ve never listened to hop-hip music. But I guess we will leave this one to the next blog…

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