In English, Order Matters

While we’ve gotten into some of the details of the history of English in previous posts, I thought it would be fun to look at some of the weird rules of the language as well. Now, I’m not talking about rules in the sense of where commas go and when to use to vs too (although those are vitally important rules…), but more the rules that ensure we don’t sound weird when we talk. In today’s post: word order.

This particular example comes from Mark Forsyth’s excellent The Elements of Eloquence (a book I’ve made mention of before). In the chapter discussing hyperbaton, Forsyth mentions an story written by J.R.R. Tolkien in which Tolkien makes mention of a “green great dragon.” Even without knowing the name of the rule, that phrase does sound a bit off, right? It seems that there is a proper order of adjectives that one must follow to keep one’s readers comfortable and of sound mind. According to Forsyth, it is as follows:

opinion-size-age-shape-colour-origin-material-purpose-Noun. So you can have a lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife.

But anything other than that order and people will cock their heads knowing that something is off.

That’s not to say that hyperbaton can’t be used to some effect, however. Often times writers (mostly poets, natch) will mess with the word order to emphasize a certain word or idea. It can be tricky, but when done well it can be a most effective tool. LiteraryDevices has some neat examples, a couple of which I’ve shared here.

Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers….
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock)….

TS Eliot – The Wasteland

Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall….

William Shakespeare – Measure for Measure



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