Ordering your sentences

Proficient English speakers pride themselves on having mastered the subtlest of grammar rules. However, many of them tend to miss out on an important one, the unwritten adjective rule. Although people may subconsciously use this rule when communicating with others, most cannot specifically write it out or justify it. This rule specifies the order to be followed, in terms of the attribute category, when using adjectives.

This order is as follows: opinion-size-age-shape-color-origin-material-purpose (followed by the noun).

It’s bizarre how almost all native English speakers follow this order mentioned above without knowing the theory that supports it. The rule, however, is not valid every single time. Like every other rule, this one has exceptions too. According to Internet statistics, it holds true around 78% of the time.

The rule of reduplication also plays an important role here; reduplication is when a word is repeated in English with a changed consonant (for example: money-honey, fuddy-duddy, and nitty-gritty) or vowel (for example: smish-smash, tish-tash, and ting-tong). The rule states that if there are three words, the I, A, O order must be followed. If there are two words, the I, A/O order must be followed.

Examples: dish-dash, chit-chat, dilly-dally, tip top, sing song, ping pong.

Factors that lead to breaking the adjective rule:

  1. Certain adjective-noun phrases act as compound nouns. Keeping this in mind, owning a “cotton little black dress” (material, size, color) is possible.
  2. The Polyanna Principle states people prefer to mention positive/indifferent qualities before the negative ones.
  3. Prosody: People prefer to utter shorter adjectives before longer ones.

In spite of these factors, the unwritten adjective rule holds true in most cases.

“A cute little blue apartment”

Going back to our rule here: “cute” serves as an opinion, so that comes at the start. The “little” size follows. The color, “blue”, follows that, and we end the phrase with our noun, “apartment”.

With the order changed: “A blue little cute apartment”

Doesn’t it sound messed up? Let’s just call this the miracle of the unwritten adjective rule!!