Adjective Order, or the Great Dragon Conundrum

In Mark Forsyth’s book The Elements of Eloquence: Secrets of the Perfect Turn of Phrase, he states that in English, adjectives have to follow a certain order before the noun:

[A]djectives in English absolutely have to be in this order: opinion-size-age-shape-colour-origin-material-purpose Noun. So you can have a lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife. 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. And as size comes before colour, green great dragons can’t exist.

This is a fascinating claim. There’s a lot of merit to it. However, it’s not nearly as iron-clad as “you’ll sound like a maniac.”

Just take the example in the last sentence: “Green great dragons can’t exist.” Putting aside the objection that dragons can’t exist at all, Forsyth overlooks a straightforward exception: biological nomenclature. I can easily posit that dracologists might identify the great dragon and a corresponding lesser dragon, and each species comes in different colors. In this instance, the adjective great or lesser travels with the noun as a unit, like French toast. So you could have a green great dragon, a blue great dragon, and a blue lesser dragon all sunning themselves on a rock, and your grammar would be perfectly fine. I would even suggest that the violation of Forsyth’s rule is what would clue in the reader that great dragon is a unit descriptor, because you wouldn’t say it that way otherwise.

Any time you fuse a specific adjective-noun pair, you can absolutely mess up that order. So if you have a French whittling knife and specify that it’s distinct from an Inuit whittling knife, you can describe it as a lovely little old rectangular green-tinted silver French whittling knife. (Note that I had to clarify green with -tinted so that green and silver didn’t bump into each other oddly. A lovely little old rectangular gray wooden Inuit whittling knife wouldn’t have that issue.)

While I hadn’t tried to codify this rule before finding Forsyth’s description of it, my instinct was to consider that the descriptions which were most important (or most specific) were closest to the noun, and got less important as they moved farther away. So you have a knife. What kind of knife is it? Purpose is the most important facet of a knife: what do you cut with it? How do you use it? A whittling knife is something different from a carving knife, a bread knife, a utility knife, or that’s not a knife, mate, THIS is a knife. From there, you can have different kinds of whittling knives: is it steel, silver, or wood? Once you know what it’s made of, you want to describe what it looks like physically. And so on out the list. Each adjective narrows down what the object looks like, and the farthest one is the least important.

But if you’re talking about two variants of the same thing (whittling knives, dragons), then a different adjective gets bumped up in importance, because it’s clarifying something specific about your objects. The adjective whittling gets fused to the noun, because both objects have the same purpose, and the adjectives are now modifying the entire noun phrase. If you’re discussing two whittling knives, and the difference is the origin, that will be more important than the material, and therefore get moved closer to the noun (or noun phrase): a silver French whittling knife and a wooden Inuit whittling knife. If you’re discussing dragons and have already clarified that great dragons and lesser dragons exist, those become the noun phrases, and “size” is extracted from the order and fused to the noun to describe it properly. Now “color” is modifying the whole noun phrase: green great dragon, blue great dragon.

This shuffling isn’t infinite. Purpose is really hard to dislodge; it’s hard to think of something more important which is included in the same list. If I was talking about two whittling knives, one rectangular and one curved, I don’t think I could say whittling rectangular knife and whittling curved knife. I’d still put whittling closest to knife, or if I established that the discussion was about whittling knives, I’d just remove whittling altogether as redundant.

Forsyth himself noted a different exception to his own rule, such as Big Bad Wolf.

You are utterly familiar with the rule of ablaut reduplication. You’ve been using it all your life. It’s just that you’ve never heard of it. But if somebody said the words zag-zig or cross-criss you would know, deep down in your loins, that they were breaking a sacred rule of language. You just wouldn’t know which one….

Reduplication in linguistics is when you repeat a word, sometimes with an altered consonant (lovey-dovey, fuddy-duddy, nitty-gritty), and sometimes with an altered vowel: bish-bash-bosh, ding-dang-dong. If there are three words then the order has to go I, A, O. If there are two words then the first is I and the second is either A or O. Mish-mash, chit-chat, dilly-dally, shilly-shally, tip top, hip-hop, flip-flop, tic tac, sing song, ding dong, King Kong, ping pong.

(“Ablaut,” since he doesn’t define it, specifically describes the vowel change.) So while Bad (opinon) comes before Big (size), you wouldn’t say the Bad Big Wolf because it violates the vowel sound order. Forsyth doesn’t claim there’s an explanation for this rule, although I like the theory about where vowels are made in the mouth. Your lips are drawn all the way back for I, in the middle for A, and forward for O. You wouldn’t say Bad Big Wolf because it mixes up this progression from the back to the front of the mouth (middle back front).

One of my favorite examples of this order is from John Donne’s poem A Valediction Forbidding Mourning:

Our two souls therefore, which are one,
   Though I must go, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion,
   Like gold to airy thinness beat.

Say the last line out loud. You move from long O to short E to short I to long E, and your mouth stretches wider and wider with each vowel — like the gold being stretched, like the two souls being pulled apart. It “violates” the vowel order but respects it at the same time — it’s the right sequence, but the order is reversed for effect.

I remember talking with a college advisor about taking some paperwork we had completed across the street to the building where it had to be processed, and how I wanted to avoid “going back and forth.” He said, “But you don’t go back first. You go forth first, and then come back. Shouldn’t the phrase be forth and back, like to and fro?” While he may have been semantically correct, the vowel rule overrides it. The A of back comes first, and then the O of forth. To and fro both have Os, but to is said with a long U sound, farther forward than the the long O of fro.

So if you want to cart around your verdant hatchling Draco domesticus, you may go out, and then you may return, but you’ll have to take your small great green dragon back and forth.