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Grammar Rule

A Surprising Grammar Rule

File this under “The Dorkiest Post in Cup of Jo History,” but I thought you guys might find this grammar rule interesting.

Jason Kottke read in The Elements of Eloquence by Mark Forsyth:

“Adjectives 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.”

It’s funny, we all know this rule, but we never realized we knew it.

Here are a few examples:
A beautiful red dress. (A red beautiful dress.)
A square wooden table. (A wooden square table.)
A wooden rocking chair. (A rocking wooden chair.)
A sweet four-year-old Canadian boy. (A Canadian four-year-old sweet boy.)

My only question: Do size and opinion sometimes flip? Because you’d say, a “charming little house” (opinion-size), but then you’d say, “a big friendly dog” (size-opinion).

Thoughts? Nerds!

P.S. Good grammar is sexy, and a grammar rule I didn’t know.

(Via Kottke.)

  1. Lauren O'Neill says...

    This is so fascinating!!! Nerdy and intriguing all at once. Thank you for this nerdy insightful short post ;)

  2. Interesting post. Enjoyed reading all the comments.

  3. Martha says...

    Someone famous and smart (George Bernard Shaw? Oscar Wilde?) wrote the GHOTI spells fish. GH as in cough, O as in women, and TI as in motion.

  4. Jacquie Katz says...

    I tutor English as a second language and when I saw this, I began to try and find exceptions. None so far and I am wondering if this is a ‘natural’ rule that applies in other languages. I have spoken Hebrew and Spanish in my dark past-I think I followed this ‘rule’ in these other languages too, and perhaps I was not speaking like a native.

    My advice, forget this rule–Language is an instinctive attempt to communicate, and grammar and rules change whether the grammarians and committees like it or not. Correctness is in the ‘eye’ of the beholder. You internalized this order as you learned to speak. If someone said, “This red, old, ugly dress”, you would still get the idea, and that is what is ultimately important.

  5. Great post! Like other’s have said, it’s hard to stop thinking about this one! So interesting!

  6. Melanie says...

    I teach this in fourth grade! A fun grammar lesson that the kids enjoy figuring out! :)

  7. Catherine says...

    Maybe “friendly” qualifies as purpose? Especially when referring to dogs.

  8. Belle says...

    Nice one! In your example, ‘friendly’ isn’t really so much of an opinion but describing the dog’s temperament. :)

    • Joanna Goddard says...

      yes, i was thinking maybe “temperament” should be added after size?

  9. Heather says...

    i saw this a couple days ago, and have not been able to stop thinking about it!!!

  10. I love grammar. More of this, please.

    I think “a charming little house” works because we often thing of “little houses” being their own thing (ie “Little House on the Prairie”).

  11. Pam says...

    This is an epiphany – brilliant!

  12. Celeste says...

    This post is everything. I’m reading Steven Pinker’s “The Sense of Style” and looooving his take on modern grammar, through a neuroscientific and linguistic view. Highly recommend!

  13. Love these posts — from one word nerd to another Joanna! <3

  14. Jami-Lin says...

    This is so great! :) I love the English nerd posts!!

    • Audrey says...

      In Australia they have female toilets!

  15. Lisa says...

    I’ve been thinking about this s lot since I saw this the other day on Facebook. I’ve just tried it out “sweetest little boy” works, but “little sweetest boy” doesn’t. English really is an interesting language!

    As another layer of nerdiness, if you’ve read “thinking fast and slow” by Daniel Kahneman doing this “instinctively” would be done by the “fast” part of your brain but when you first learnt it it would have been done by the “slow” rational part of your brain (so you would have had to have thought it through consciously, rather than your brain processing it automatically)

  16. Elizabeth says...

    So if you really want to nerd out, check out this post on the Language Log blog: http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=27890

    The “rule” is actually more of a guideline. We don’t say the “bad big wolf,” which follows the rule about opinion before size, but the “big bad wolf.”

    English: the language with an exception to almost every rule.

  17. Sil says...

    I learned this rule when I was studying English: “opinion-size-length-colour-pattern-nationality”.

  18. Laura says...

    Love and need it. I’m Italian.

  19. Cara Brewer says...

    Loved this Grammar nerd unit! it’s a funny quirk about adjectives that how sometimes size and opinion flips. On contrary the rule says that adjectives in English have to be in perfect order.

  20. Jem says...

    I’m not a regular follower here, but somewhat of a grammar nerd. Saw this on Bloglovin’ (notice the end apostrophe you nerds!). So delightfully, educationally thought-provoking. (Did I get the commas right?) I love to mess with that order from time to time to create a special emphasis which is produced by deliberately tampering with accepted norms, as in the example of the “large, generous woman”, or to emphasis “generous” and relate it to character rather than size “the generous, large woman”.

  21. This must be going viral these days because I was discussing this with a fellow translator. We are both native speakers of the Greek language, with English as a second language, and we remember being told at school (around the age of 14) about this (or at least part of it). It’s funny though, how we don’t remember making a conscious effort to apply it and just learned to do it by experience, like native speakers do.

  22. I will be sharing this post with my husband. His first language is German and we have these kinds of discussions all the time! German is so exact all the time. And thus he would say all of this matters very much.

  23. Deb D. says...

    I would not say dorkiest, rather it is the boldest bitty brand-new boxy black-inked Brooklynesque broadband bettering blog post ever!

    • Jennifer Hale says...

      Lol!!!! High five to Deb D!

  24. Anna says...

    I really love this!!! Thank you for posting!!! These are some of my favourite posts!

  25. Caz says...

    Yes I know this rule, but only because I teach English as a second language! I remember being stunned when I saw there was actually a rule. Damned if I can ever remember it though; I always have to check my notes before I teach it. There are so may things us native speakers just naturally know how to say but we don’t know why.

  26. michelle says...

    I am also the mother of a sweet four-year-old Canadian boy!

    I LOVE these grammar posts. I sent it to all my fellow nerds. It’s amazing that we absorb these types of language rules without formally learning them. No wonder learning a second language is so tough!

  27. Kathy says...

    Do they even teach grammar in school any more? I can’t count the number of times I hear some one saying “me and Susie” or “Myself and John”. Or
    “I need them papers”. And I cringe every time I hear someone say they went to the liberry and I seen that movie. I fear I’ve become somewhat of a grammar Nazi, even though I’m sure I make the occasional mistake also. But some of these examples are so egregious, I can’t get past them.

    • Nina says...

      Of course “me and Susie” would be correct some of the time (unless you insist on “Susie and me”?) – what bothers me more is when people always use “I” rather than “me”, regardless of context, and think they’re being terribly correct!

  28. Proper grammar is not nerdy it’s awesome! What a funny quirk that we all seem to have, although I think a rocking wooden chair sounds like much more fun.

    • Anna says...

      I agree. You shouldn’t be apologetic or label yourself as dorky when approaching the topic of grammar.

  29. Bet says...

    I am from Barcelona and I used to babysit a boy who attended a British school and he knew by heart this small rhyme:

    In my nice big flat

    There’s an old round box

    For my green swiss hat

    And my woolly walking socks.

    Maybe someone has already posted it but I always go back to it when I am writing in english. Is perfect

    Thank You for your blog :)

  30. Kristen says...

    I love this and it coincides with my frustration reading and hearing so many redundancies such as, “tiny, small” used to describe something. Makes me want to shout, “Pick one, but don’t use both!”

  31. Lucy says...

    Here’s a further grammar nerd question – are there supposed to be commas in the long string of adjectives about the whittling knife? I remember learning that if an adjective described the noun rather than the adjective immediately following it, then it needed a comma to separate it from the next adjective: “old, rectangular, green, French, knife.” But all those commas are so disruptive! Anyone know the official rule?

    • Michelle says...

      Grammar nerd checking in! In list of adjectives like that, you can either omit all commas, or include commas after every adjective (except the last one, right before the noun). In other words, they’re not necessary, as long as you’re consistent about using them or not. Hope that helps!

  32. JK says...

    So crazy! I was reading it and thinking “I didn’t know that…” but when I read your examples it made perfect sense. I love fun tidbits like this!

  33. Courtney says...

    I was a Lit major…you have no idea how much I love this post!
    Bravo!

  34. Lora says...

    Sorry, Jo, but the comments are reminding me of this….

    Which word did he emphasize? Did he say, “Why would Jerry bring anything?” or, “Why would Jerry bring anything?” Did he emphasize “Jerry” or “bring.”

    • Hahahaha! Love it!

    • Taylor says...

      “I think he emphasized ‘would.'” Hahaha!

  35. Elspeth says...

    I love this!

  36. KariM says...

    Okay. If you’re going to get excited about nerdy grammar rules, then Cup of Jo needs to stop using “excited for” and excited to.” It is “excited about.” Sorry, but that’s been bugging me for years. I’ll shut up now.

    • Nina says...

      Yup!

  37. Natanya says...

    Oh I love this post, and you! Funny how we absorb language and rules. This is great.

  38. Laura C. says...

    As for me, I’ve always remembered that colour is in last place.
    Anyway I have to say:
    In many, many, MANY blogs (including this one) I have read “it’s” instead of “its”. I may be a non-speaking English and surely I’ve made (and still make) lots of mistakes when I leave my comments, but I always end up thinking, how is it possible? “Its” and “it’s”??
    No way José!
    Ps. Grammar police here, I know :D

    • Jim says...

      “It’s” is just short for “it is,” so if those two words don’t fit the usage, go with “Its.”

    • Melissa says...

      I think that’s the most common mistake on the internet! The runner-up is the errant apostrophe in a plural word.

      It’s= it is/has. Its= belonging to it.

      I find that CoJ rarely (if ever) makes those mistakes, which is another reason I enjoy this blog.

    • Tasha says...

      Yes. This gets on my nerves. I’m a technical writer. It’s always means “it is.” It’s a contraction.

      I think people were taught that you add an apostrophe to show ownership which has contributed to the madness.

  39. Maggie says...

    I think in the case of the dog, friendly becomes the purpose adjective!

    Also, did you read the poem about this? So lovely: https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/adjectives-order

    You and Swiss-Miss are always on point with the topics of the day :)

    Thanks for keeping our minds shiny and bright!

    • Cynthia says...

      What a great poem. Thanks for posting it!

  40. I have to teach this to my ESL students and can never remember the rule! It’s something we do as native speakers without even thinking about it. People who are learning English do need to learn it, though, to understand why we say “a big red car” but not “a red big car.” :)

    • Katie says...

      Yes! I teach ESL too and it’s remarkable how native speakers don’t even think about it…and yet there’s a whole logic behind it. Fascinating!

  41. Katie says...

    I love this!! I love that we all generally do it, but don’t know that we do. Aren’t we smart?!

  42. Mar says...

    When I say an old green rectangular French whittling knife it also sounds ok in my head… I.e. I’ve changed the position of green and rectangular.

  43. you’ve blown my mind, Joanna!

  44. Giulia says...

    ha, this reminds me of how I can never get my Starbucks order done correctly ;) Grande, iced, non fat, decaf latte, or grande, decaf, non-fat iced latte…

    • Simone says...

      That’s very similar to what I get! I always start with “Grande iced” and go from there. That way they can start grabbing the correct cup and write down all the other details I rattle off in no particular order :)

    • Haha, Starbucks orders are a totally different thing. I worked there in high school and it may have changed since then, but we were taught to call out “iced” first (to know which stack of cups to reach for) then “decaf” (because back then we had to grind the beans ourselves, though now I think it’s automated), THEN the size, and then it’s just a straight line down what to mark on the cup (milk, flavor, special instructions, etc.)

  45. Chloé says...

    This is why A Cup of Jo is the best blog ever ♥

  46. Read this a few days ago and its so true :) but somehow feels wrong to break this unofficial rule.

    Shruthi
    http://nyambura.co

  47. Shelly says...

    I emailed my husband about this article just today with a size-opinion question. Would you say (about an article) “An interesting short read” or “A short interesting read”? I think it depends which of the two adjectives you’re looking to emphasize.

  48. Samantha says...

    I am nerding out over this post! Love it!

  49. Saw this in the Quartz email this morning (thanks for the recommendation on that a few weeks ago, but the way!). I totally forwarded it to my husband #nerdalert I’m right there with you on the grammar stuff!

  50. T says...

    Oh my gosh. This makes me question (in a good way) everything! Such a cool & informative post :)

  51. I am constantly correcting my bilingual kid on this, because it isn’t the same in French (the other language).
    This is the second grammar post I’ve seen in my usual prowling this week. Is there a trend? Fingers crossed!

    • Giulia says...

      Yes, I do as well. The French coming through in English is amusing though.

    • Jules says...

      This makes me wonder if French speaking children learn the BAGS (beauty, age, goodness, & size) rule for French adjectives that go before the noun…

  52. Jossie says...

    Love your grammar nerd posts!!!! Jam for nerd toast? Yes!!!!

  53. Mireille says...

    Love this, thank you! I have to ask, why the “When Harry Met Sally” photo? I just happened to watch it again this week and am racking my brain trying to guess what the link is to the article?

  54. catalina says...

    wow, this is a great post for me! I teach this rule to my French students, they find it hard to learn, but some somehow do it instinctively-intuition in a foreign language really makes a difference.
    I like the way it’s phrased in your post, much friendlier than a grammar book, I’ll use it in class if you don’t mind. And I’ve realized thanks to Lynn above that our books teach seasons with capital letters, oops!!! :)

  55. Claire says...

    This is interesting – but can a silver knife be green (maybe green-handled) or indeed rectangular?

  56. Now that I am aware of this… I hope that I don’t start second guessing myself!

  57. Lissa says...

    This is why learning a second language is so difficult — I’m reaching into the depths on this, but I seem to remember that when learning French in high school, my teacher taught us a mnemonic device for remembering order of adjectives that go before nouns in French — BAGS (beauty, age, goodness, size). So, the beautiful, old woman. The lovely, large house. That’s a different order than in English and totally throws people for a loop trying to learn French. (The French put some other adjectives after the noun, but that’s a topic for another day!)

    • Jodi says...

      Ha! Wonder if we had the same French teacher or if this trick got passed among the Madames but mine taught us the exact same thing! I always refer to this in my head when trying to describe something in French.

    • Taylor says...

      Yes, BAGS for French! And those are the only types that go before the noun, right? It’s been a while! ;)

  58. Noelle says...

    Off topic, but the quote that’s taking place in the movie still you picked is one of my absolute favorite quotes from When Harry Met Sally. :D

    “Someone is staring at you in personal growth…”

    • Mona says...

      I love that line :-)

  59. Isabel says...

    I learned this while studying in Brazil, it was crazy and was in our exams 🤓 I never learned haha

    • Joanna Goddard says...

      wow!!! that seems really hard to memorize vs. just knowing it intuitively.

  60. This is jam for my nerd bread. LOVE IT.

    • Joanna Goddard says...

      hahahaha

  61. Alice Quin says...

    These random posts are why I love cup of Jo so much :-)

  62. Fantastic! This post makes my nerdiness oh-so happy.

  63. J.R.R. Tolkien said about this very matter:

    “I remember nothing about it except a philological fact. My mother said nothing about the dragon, but pointed out that one could not say ‘a green great dragon’, but had to say ‘a great green dragon’. I wondered why, and still do. The fact that I remember this is possibly significant, as I do not think I ever tried to write a story again for many years, and was taken up with language.”

    Our ordering of these adjectives has as much to do with verbal cadence as it does with how fundamental a characteristic is to an object or creature’s being (essence). We tend to put closest to the noun the descriptors that are most closely related to /who that creature is/. This falls right in line with Kottke’s assertion that we put “purpose” adjectives nearest the noun: We are, whether we realize it or not, very (and subconsciously) interested in a subject’s clearest essence and meaning in this life. Everything else––its size, color, shape––is extraneous.

    The question of whether to say “a charming, little house” or “a big, friendly dog” can make you ask, “What is most essential to the house or the dog?” Is it its size or its character? Sometimes it’s both, and in that case, it’s merely a question of cadence.

    Lastly: Let’s not forget our commas between adjectives! (But not between the last adjective and the noun––a common mistake!)

    • I love the Tolkien bit! Thanks for sharing!

  64. I think the noun has to matter! If it’s a person (or animal) I think it’s treated differently than an object. Hence, your dog/house example.

    Another: I’d say “cute little purse” but “tall, kind man.” I think putting size immediately next to a person (or pet) makes it sound like you’re over-emphasizing the physical.

    Like “large, generous woman” sounds better than “generous large woman” or “short, spunky boy” vs. “spunky short boy.”

    Maybe it’s just me, though! Thanks for giving me something to mull over :)

  65. Asa says...

    That’s very cool. I think opinion and size can flip because, in many cases, size can be subjective or an opinion (i.e., tiny houses or even friendly dogs).

  66. Marina says...

    We actually learn that list when we take English classes as a foreign language (I’m a portuguese speaker)! It’s funny because we have to think of it while we are speaking until, one day, it comes out naturally. ;)

  67. I was just having this conversation with my husband yesterday and trying to figure out the order (linguistic geeks here!) Good to know! I think that the size-opinion one is questionable, both your examples sound grammatically fine!

  68. Natalie Brennan says...

    I love this!! I’m officially a grammar nerd and have a whole shelf in my bookcase for grammar books.

  69. I love this! Grammar nerds unite!

    • Joanna Goddard says...

      haha for sure!

  70. Sarah says...

    I love this post! I’m going to print the rule out and pin it to my cork board at work.

    Side note: I am the mother of a sweet four-year-old Canadian boy. :)

    • Joanna Goddard says...

      awww love that :)

    • Rosemary Griffis says...

      I’ll confess: I didn’t read all the comments. Considering that this may be redundant vis-a-vis previous comments, the placement of adjectives may have to do with what the adjective describes: the noun, or another adjective. So that in “a beautiful red dress,” does beautiful describe red, or dress. What if the phrase read, “an ugly red dress”? Is the dress ugly or the is the (shade of) red ugly? Then, the commas have to be considered. Nowadays, commas are almost anathema. Sometimes, in a long sentence, commas are necessary to order the agreement of subject and predicate, or the aforesaid descriptive sequence of adjectives. BTW, I am a baseball fan. A lot of the players are from the Dominican Republic. It kills me when the announcers say, “So-and-so is from the Dominican.+ A-i-eee! It’s like fingernails on a blackboard.

  71. Lynn says...

    So interesting. I also love The New Yorker’s Comma Queen video series.

    Here’s my grammar nerd tip for everyone’s favorite upcoming season: Seasons aren’t capitalized. So as you profess your love for all things fall, keep it lowercase, people! https://www.grammarly.com/blog/are-seasons-capitalized/

    • Joanna Goddard says...

      thanks, lynn!

    • Jossie says...

      Autocorrect capitalises Spring but not summer, autumn or winter. Frustrating for a nerd such as me!!!!!

    • Yes to this! I see people doing it wrong all over the internet and it drives me crazy.

      Another thing driving me crazy lately: rarely do you use an apostrophe to make things plural! If I had a dollar for every sentence I see on Facebook that says something like ” my kid’s love apple’s” I would be rich. Drives me nuts (nut’s)!