About Writers, writing technique

Order, Please, Mr. Adjective.

Not so long ago I caught a bit of a podcast from Mignon Fogarty, also known as Grammar Girl, talking about the correct order of multiple adjectives in an adjectival phrase. (I know. Sounds like a wild party, but let’s try to focus here.) When using more than one adjective to modify a noun—and for the purposes of didactics, let’s ignore the fact that you probably don’t want to do that most of the time—how do we decide what order to put them in?

Most native speakers have little difficulty with this task. We tend, without even thinking about it, to follow the same basic order for the most common types of adjectives:

Opinion
Size
Age
Shape
Color
Origin
Material
Purpose

Most of these are second nature to us. We would never refer to “a yellow, stupid shirt” (color before opinion) or “an Armenian, old carpet-seller” (origin before age). These examples just sound wrong. There is some give and take—shape and color can sometimes go either way—but the basic litany is pretty well fixed. We might refer to “a dismal, mud-grey, slack-shouldered, American, polyester leisure suit,” (opinion, color, shape, origin, material, purpose) but surely never “a polyester, mud-grey, American, slack-shouldered, dismal leisure suit” unless purely for comedic purposes.

But…how do we know to do this? Is it only that we are accustomed to this ordering, or is there an intrinsic sense to it? In all likelihood, the custom is too well-ingrained for us to objectively establish anything inherent about it, but let’s examine the list and see if anything jumps out at us.

First guess: There seems to be a movement from more-to-less subjective. Opinion is, of course, the most subjective of all. We are offering a judgement as to the quality or value of the object. By the time we get to purpose, the adjective has almost become part of the noun (leisure suit, drinking fountain, voting booth), which is why it wants the nearest proximity. Similarly, material is (literally) built in. If our suit were made of camelhair rather than polyester, it would still beg to be called a “camelhair leisure suit.”

But what about color and shape? There’s no question of subjectivity there. Red is red. Square is square. But what about oblong? Or cloudy? Or pale? Or sloping? All would qualify as color or shape descriptors, but they don’t tell us much. At least nothing very specific.

The more I think about it, the more I think the pattern awards specificity with proximity. The more specific (and perhaps necessary) the descriptor, the closer to the noun it gets to sit. We might refer to “a big, old, black, oak credenza” (size, age, color, material) but we would probably say “a big, black, oak, Victorian credenza.” (At least I would.) The specificity of Victorian (as opposed to old) trumps the vaguer descriptors like big and black. Okay, maybe “a big, Victorian, black, oak credenza” sounds just as good. But part of the problem is that comma between black and oak. We read “black, oak” but we hear “black oak”—thereby turning “black” into a modifier for “oak”and marrying the color adjective to the material adjective, making it more specific, more intrinsic. Here’s another way of looking at it. If we are referring to a Siberian pochard with a red crest, we can call it a “red-crested Siberian pochard,” but if all Siberian pochards have red crests, then we’d tend to call it a “Siberian red-crested pochard.” It becomes part of the bird’s name, therefore both intrinsic and specific.

But maybe I’m thinking about it backwards. It feels natural to refer to “a creepy, old, black oak credenza,” as opposed to any other order, but creepy is the only word that really interests me in that description. Why should a credenza be creepy? Maybe we should investigate before Lord Manners comes back and finds us rummaging through his credenza drawers. We probably don’t really need to know that the creepy piece of furniture is old or made of black oak, * so maybe the first word in the list is really the important one. I suppose it depends how you look at it. Maybe the intrinsic, specific modifiers stay close to the noun, while the more subjective ones keep their distance. There does seem to be some prioritizing going on.

Anyway, unless you’re planning to use stacks of adjectives, then none of this matters much. Adjectives, of course, are much maligned by the doyens of literary style. Voltaire said “they are frequently the greatest enemy of the substantive.” Clifton Fadiman called them “the banana peel of the parts of speech.” And sure, they can be abused like most anything else, and I’m all in favor of erring of the side of less. But plainness shouldn’t be fetishized either, or your work may turn into a drab, nondescript, pedestrian, colorless, amorphous, purposeless bore.

In fact, I find this rather trivial question of proper adjectival order interesting specifically because we native speakers follow it without being taught, without even questioning the why or the wherefore. And that’s intriguing. Where did it come from? What does it mean?

Any thoughts?

 

*Try googling “creepy credenza.” You’ll get eight results, four of which are in Italian.

Advertisements
Standard

18 thoughts on “Order, Please, Mr. Adjective.

  1. GD Deckard says:

    A fun big ol’ odd idea that occurs to me is to see if Grammar Girl does interventions & if so, give her Carl E. Reed’s address. One of them won’t survive the encounter.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. If you have an ear for words, certain things just sound right or wrong. Just like music sounds right or wrong. I think it’s only natural that words have a proper place and order just as musical notes do on a score.

    Liked by 2 people

    • atthysgage says:

      I think it’s innate as well. but I’m still a bit in the chicken-or-the-egg situation. Why do certain sequences of words (or sequences of notes) sound right? Certainly with music, the argument can be (and has been) made that we are most comfortable with certain intervals (octaves, fifths, fourths) because they correspond to relatively simple harmonic ratios (2:1. 3:2, 3:4) as opposed to crunchier intervals like major sevenths and augmented fourths (big, weird ratios). Crunchy intervals tend to cry out for resolution to simpler ones, but we do learn to appreciate them for their flavor and the tension they create.

      Is there a similar mechanism at play with prose? Do we like the crunchiness of unorthodox constructions and unexpected word (and word order) choices? I know I do, if only because of the tension created by a weird choice. It can just be weird, of course, but sometimes it’s very effective.

      Obvious question: in time, given increasing exposure to unorthodox constructions, do we become more acclimated and learn to appreciate them purely for their own flavor and not just as novelties or tension-creating devices? Seems likely.

      Liked by 2 people

    • GD Deckard says:

      @ TYLERMDEAL
      Well put. Maybe you would write a blog for this site?
      If you do, please email it to GD (at) Deckard (dot) com
      I’ll pass it by Atthys Gage’s one good editorial eye and we can ask Curtis Bausse to schedule it for posting.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Fascinating article, Atthys! Thought-provoking and well worth the read. (I am really digging this Writers Co-op corner of the web.)

    Now, regarding our instinctive ordering of adjectives in a “proper” order (“Is it only that we are accustomed to this ordering, or is there an intrinsic sense to it?”, as you put it) David Foster Wallace writes in his essay “Authority & American Usage” (from Consider The Lobster And Other Essays; Back Bay Books, 2006.) which I happened to be reading last night (yes, I celebrated Christmas in part by reading an essay on generative grammar, linguistics and the white-hot rhetorical wars fought between the opposing prescriptivist and descriptivist editorial camps of the compilers of dictionaries. Is there anything wrong with that?): “. . . you get the basic proposition of N. Chomsky’s generative linguistics, which is that there exists a Universal Grammar beneath and common to all languages, plus that there is probably an actual part of the human brain that’s imprinted with this Universal Grammar the same way that birds’ brains are imprinted with ‘fly south’ and dogs’ are imprinted with ‘sniff genitals.’ ”

    True, David Foster Wallace was explaining in this particular section of his essay why people don’t make mistakes like saying, “Did you seen the car keys of me?” and “The show was looked by many people”, but I think the same underlying cognitive principle applies (as Noam Chomsky has clearly demonstrated): We are hard-wired at birth to speak a certain way, to put words in a certain order. (Yes, there are languages—Spanish, for instance—where the noun comes before the adjective, but these are minor cultural linguistic tweaks and not a wholesale demolishing of fundamental grammar.)

    As for: “Adjectives, of course, are much maligned by the doyens of literary style. Voltaire said ‘they are frequently the greatest enemy of the substantive.’ Clifton Fadiman called them ‘the banana peel of the parts of speech.’ ”

    Well. First off, let me note that people who are unable to execute a particular skill with any marked degree of success tend to denigrate said skill as an instinctive form of ego defense. Secondly, minimalist writing has become fetishized as the only proper, serious, technically-competent and culturally-acceptable (by MFA-influenced snobs, primarily) form of fictioneering. Thirdly, I would cite the effective, transportive [sic], ecstatic writings of Clark Ashton Smith, Anne Rice, Ray Bradbury, H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, et. al.; as the final word on the subject. Adjectives are to sentences what spices are to food: a piquant pinch punches (apologies for the alliteration) everything up a notch; too much makes the food/sentence unpalatable. It is a matter of taste and skill. However, I strongly warn all writers: to be over-enthralled with minimalism is to engage in the worship of a blank-faced idiot god—there is no there, there; folks.

    Liked by 4 people

    • atthysgage says:

      Couldn’t have said it better myself. I always got a little lost in Chomsky, but it’s a fascinating subject. It’s interesting that mistakes like “Did you seen the car keys of me?” and “The show was looked by many people” are the kinds of mistakes often made my novice speakers of English as a second language. My daughter, adopted from China at the age of five, still cannot properly get her brain around verb tenses (despite being a fairly brilliant, straight-A student.) She uses them correctly in speech most of the time, but errors still bedevil her written prose, as she switches blithely from past to present and back again without so much as a ‘by your leave.’

      Leonard Bernstein did a fascinating lecture series (I think it’s still on YouTube) when he was visiting professor at Harvard, part of which was about trying to use Chomskian analysis for larger musical forms. Like with so much Bernstein, it was half-baked in places and utterly delightful. (It was called The Unanswered Question. Well-worth watching the whole thing, though, fair warning) it’s probably about twelve hours in length.)

      Liked by 3 people

  4. mimispeike says:

    I do use stacks of adjectives, I arrange them by instinct. Me, I am endlessly troubled by where to put the commas. It’s commas I need help with. Somebody write on commas, please.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. GD Deckard says:

    Scattered thoughts on this…

    I don’t think it’s words in themselves but sometimes, just sometimes, our writing can take the reader’s thoughts where they didn’t expect to go and suddenly something new emerges.

    Guess I’m with TYLERMDEAL. Words are like musical notes. But it’s the feelings and the thoughts they create in us that make the music worth listening to or the book worth reading.

    Obviously, a painter must know paint and brush. But we will never understand his art by examining his palette.

    When we write well, something transcends.

    Liked by 3 people

  6. mimispeike says:

    Words are clay to me. I apply them to my armature of story. I pack them on, scrape them away, smoosh them, carve them, until they work for me. I probably use far too many words. Hemingway I’m not.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. One of the topics I used to deal with when I had a job I got paid for. Not adjectives especially but language. I don’t personally believe it’s necessary to call upon an innate device – the baby’s brain is an incredible learning machine, able to extract regularities from a complex input. But that’s different from wondering why languages are constructed the way they are. Why do 75% of the world’s languages say ‘Donald groped the woman’ (to take a perfectly random example) rather than ‘Donald the woman groped’. Because English is SVO, it might seem more logical to us: the subject acts upon the object. But it might be seen as just as logical to posit subject and object first, then say what the subject did. There are even a few examples of OVS, but these are rare. Which is understandable really – ‘The woman groped Donald’ is highly improbable.

    Liked by 3 people

  8. mimispeike says:

    I am constantly blown away by the specific (and entertaining) comments of people who obviously have studied this stuff and know what they’re talking about. You guys are great!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Perry Palin says:

    My friend Bill is a fine writer. His advice on adjectives adverbs is as follows. Go to your first draft and remove all of the adjectives and all of the adverbs. Then go back and remove the rest of the adjectives. I’ve tried this, and my writing is better for it.

    I can’t really remove all of the adjectives. The order of the adjectives that remain is intuitive for a person who’s first language is English. We write “gray granite hill” rather than “granite gray hill”.

    Don’t know much about musical notes on a score. But the sounds of words and rhythm of words tell the story. In a short story a pair of young friends take a wilderness canoe trip for a short three days, and Billy thinks he’s in heaven. Near the end of the story the message comes with a hard “b” and short sentences.

    “We never went back together. Thirteen months later, Billy was killed in a fight. The chopper went down in a steaming jungle. They worked hard, they said, to carry his broken body back to the base. They sent him home in a box.”

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s