Big bad modifier order

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This is a quote from Mark Forsyth's book The Elements of Eloquence: Secrets of the Perfect Turn of Phrase. And Nicholas Feinberg asks

This claim seems iffy to me, but it's interesting – have you heard of this before? Do you know of anything related that I could read, or anyone else I should ask?

Mark Forsyth's book starts its discussion of this topic with an odd claim about the English language, and an interesting anecdote about Tolkien:

Hyperbaton is when you put words in an odd order, which is very, very difficult to do in English. Given that almost everything else in the English language is slapdash, happy-go-lucky, care-may-the-Devil, word order is surprisingly strict. John Ronald Reuel Tolkien wrote his first story aged seven. It was about a "green great dragon." He showed it to his mother who told him that you absolutely couldn't have a green great dragon, and that it had to be a great green one instead. Tolkien was so disheartened that he never wrote another story for years.

The reason for Tolkien's mistake, since you ask, is that 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. And as size comes before colour, green great dragons can't exist.

The bit about green great dragons is correct, I think, and it's also correct that there are often strong preferences for prenominal modifier order. But it's not so easy to characterize the preferences — "big bad wolf" is right and "bad big wolf" isn't, but that seems to be size-opinion rather than opinion-size.

And many cases work both ways — COCA has:

1+2 2+1
43 (73%) 16 (27%)
9 (3%) 345 (97%)
69 (95%) 4 (5%)
25 (18%) 116 (82%)

According to Forsyth (I think), those all should be opinion-size, i.e. 2+1 as in the second column — but all of them are mixed, and some go pretty strongly the other way.

Furthermore, there are some strong modifier-order preferences about which Forsyth's scale says nothing:

1+2 2+1
18 (90%) 2 (10%)
54 (73%) 20 (27%)
2 (25%) 6 (75%)

And some of these seem to have changed over time:

There's certainly a literature on such things — you could take a look at Richard Sproat and Chi-lin Shih, "The Cross-Linguistic Distribution of Adjective Ordering Restrictions", except for the fact that Springer wants to charge you a bit more than a dollar a page to read it. More cheaply, you could look through some of the 264 works that cite that chapter, including e.g. Alexandra Teodorescu's  "Adjective Ordering Restrictions Revisited".

Another interesting place to look would be Stefanie Wulff, "A multifactorial corpus analysis of adjective order in English", International Journal of Corpus Linguistics, 2003:

This paper is concerned with the question of which factors govern prenominal adjective order (AO) in English. In particular, the analysis aims to overcome shortfalls of previous analyses by, firstly, adopting a multifactorial approach integrating all variables postulated in the literature, thereby doing justice to the well-established fact that cognitive and psychological processes are multivariate and complex. Secondly, the phenomenon is investigated on the basis of a large corpus, rendering the results obtained more representative and valid of naturally occurring language than those of previous studies. To this end, corpus-linguistic operationalizations of phonological, syntactic, semantic and pragmatic determinants of AO are devised and entered into a Linear Discriminant Analysis, which determines the relative influence of all variables (semantic variables being most important) and yields a classification accuracy of 78%. Moreover, by means of the operationalizations developed in this analysis, the ordering of yet unanalyzed adjective strings can be predicted with about equal accuracy (73.5%).

The fact that her algorithm was only able to predict the ordering of two adjectives 73.5% of the time — where chance would be 50% — suggests that all of the relevant factors are not yet accounted for. Presumably Forsyth's template would do quite a bit worse, though of course people like that don't actually check their predictions.

On a similar topic, you might take a look at Cooper and Ross, "World Order" (1975):

We, began the present study by asking, as some linguists have asked before us, why the ordering of certain conjoined elements is fixed. A few examples from English appear below:

(1) bigger and better/ *better and bigger
(2) fore and aft / *aft and fore
(3) kit and caboodle / *caboodle and kit

In each of these cases, and in numerous others, the ordering of the two conjuncts is rigidly fixed in normal speech. We will refer to such cases as "freezes". Abraham (1950) and Malkiel (1959) have treated various aspects of this phenomenon. Our own study in this area has focused on two related problems: (1) the problem of trying to specify the types of linguistic environments in which freezes are apt to occur; and (2) the problem of specifying the rules that determine the linear order of two or more fixed conjuncts in particular frozen environments. Although our goal of solving these problems seemed manageable enough at first glance, we have been continually smitten since our initial attempts to tackle these questions by the enormity of the freezing phenomenon itself. Currently, we believe that the study of freezing touches rather directly on matters that extend to a variety of both linguistic and ' psychological issues. We report below our' preliminary progress on this seemingly endless journey. which we hope will eventually culminate in a fairly explicit theory of freezing and its relation to the variety of mental factors we explore here.

They consider a wide range of cases like "cat and mouse", "then and now", "here and there", "long and short", "ham and eggs", "meat and potatoes", etc.  You could also take a look at some of the 378 works that cite "World Order".


  1. John Roth said,

    September 4, 2016 @ 8:16 am

    A green great dragon would be perfectly correct if there were also brown great dragons, red great dragons, purple great dragons with pink polkadots and so forth.

    [(myl) There's a discussion of such things in Liberman & Sproat, "The stress and structure of modified noun phrases in English" (1992) — see e.g. around p. 165. Among the relevant issues are lexicalization, focus, parallel vs. stacked modification, and so forth…]

  2. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    September 4, 2016 @ 8:34 am

    Yes indeed – but what that suggests is that departing from the standard order implies that something is operating as a name: so 'bad Big Wolf' would be fine if there were a recognised class of Big Wolves, and so on.

  3. Bloix said,

    September 4, 2016 @ 8:48 am

    There is a road sign on the way to Yosemite National Park for the Old Big Oak Flat Road. If these were all modifiers of "road," the order would be the big flat old oak road. But Big Oak Flat was a mining town – named for the meadow ("flat") that had a big oak in it – and the road is the old [former] way to get to there.

  4. Dick Margulis said,

    September 4, 2016 @ 8:51 am

    In the editing trade, the order discussed above is generally maintained for expository prose, with the practical rule of thumb that if an author wants to deviate from it for emphasis, that's okay, but a comma is required. So an ugly great green dragon becomes a green, great, ugly dragon.

    [(myl) So "big, bad wolf"?]

  5. bks said,

    September 4, 2016 @ 9:17 am

    To my ear rectangular is free to move around among the other adjectives.

  6. Anon said,

    September 4, 2016 @ 9:32 am

    The "big ugly" vs. "ugly little" entry in your table is really striking (and obvious to this native English speaker now that you've pointed it out). Any theories on why this is?

    [(myl) I don't know any really convincing answer to this excellent question. Some possible directions: prosodic effects; convergence of collective probability learning; different ideas about the relative essentialism of "big" and "little"; ???]

  7. Brett said,

    September 4, 2016 @ 9:52 am

    What I found most striking is that both "now and then" and "then and now" are normal phrasings, but they mean totally different things.

  8. Gwen Katz said,

    September 4, 2016 @ 9:56 am

    Some of those "X and Y" phrases sound like idioms to me, especially "kit and caboodle." But in lists of nouns, it's usually possible to sort the items more or less in order of importance (largest animal to smallest, main dish before side dishes). The interesting thing about adjectives is that you usually can't rank their importance very easily.

  9. Julia P said,

    September 4, 2016 @ 10:03 am

    Zeno Vendler's _Adjectives and Nominalizations_ talks about this in detail as well.

  10. rosie said,

    September 4, 2016 @ 10:16 am

    The issue is really more broadly with the order of modifiers, not just with those we consider to be adjectives. At the start of the list, we may add
    * pre-determiner adjectives (e.g. such, what, quite)
    * determiner
    * quantity e.g. numeral.

    At the end, we may put

    * noun.

    Nouns used as modifiers are absolutely part of this issue. The issue makes me wish for a better term than detective short story. There's something wrong there, which is also one thing that makes me uncomfortable about child sexual abuse (quite apart from the act itself): there's a true adjective between the modifying noun and the head noun.

    [(myl) For a summary of these issues, see (especially the first few pages of) "The stress and structure of modified noun phrases in English".]

  11. keri said,

    September 4, 2016 @ 10:24 am

    I was trying to figure out the "Big Bad" wolf, and looking at the comment about parallel vs. stacked modifications and so on clued me in to my instinctive feeling. Perhaps that Liberman & Sproat paper explains it as well, but I feel like we go to "Big Bad" over "Bad Big" for the sound of it (I think of "Great Big" as a contrast, and the position of the beginning/ending consonants), but also that "big" is working in two roles, to modify "bad" as well as "wolf". It's a "very bad wolf" and a "big wolf" at the same time.

    This works for "big ugly" as well. I tend to think of something described as "big ugly" as being particularly (notably?) ugly before I think of it as a particularly large example. The size is relevant, but the ugliness is more important. ("Big ugly zit", "big ugly car", "big ugly mosquito" are all examples I've used often.)

    I don't know – maybe my examples are simply where the second adjective is simply more important/remarkable (if you're commenting on a zit or mosquito, it's probably going to be a big one), and that supersedes the general order of things, and is making me think the "big" is emphasizing the second adjective, when it's the placement that's emphasizing it.

  12. Fernando said,

    September 4, 2016 @ 10:39 am

    I grew up in Brazil. The textbooks used by the Brazil-US Cultural Union to teach English to non-native speakers included a full-page table on the order of modifiers, without which Portuguese speakers found it very difficult to construct correct sentences. I often wish I had made a copy, even as a native speaker. Getting the order wrong is often the thing that reveals that someone has learned English as a second language.

  13. Martha said,

    September 4, 2016 @ 10:51 am

    I'm an ESOL teacher, and teaching adjective order seems to be one of the grammar issues that my fellow teachers complain about the most. I think one of the big issues is (as was mentioned before) because you can have a great green dragon, under certain circumstances. I think it makes the rule feel impossible to teach, since nothing's ever outright ungrammatical the way other constructions can be. If only students didn't shudder in horror whenever you tell them "it depends on the context."

    ESOL textbooks tend to list it as opinion, then size, but add that there are a few adjectives, including "big," that always come first.

  14. Coby Lubliner said,

    September 4, 2016 @ 11:13 am

    When I type "beautiful big" into Google search, I get suggestions for houses, dogs, cats and eyes. With regard to the first three, it seems that "big" defines a category: big houses (or dogs) as opposed to small houses (or dogs), and big cats usually means lions, tigers and the like. But I don't know how beautiful big eyes might differ from big beautiful eyes, and indeed they get roughly the same ghit rate (~400K).

  15. Gregory Kusnick said,

    September 4, 2016 @ 11:19 am

    In fairytales, "evil stepmother" isn't an opinion; it's a job description. "Evil" in this case fills the purpose slot, not the opinion slot. So maybe something similar applies to "big bad wolf".

  16. Coby Lubliner said,

    September 4, 2016 @ 1:44 pm

    How about “intangible, physical, tall, power, beautiful southern border wall”?

  17. Jason A. Quest said,

    September 4, 2016 @ 1:44 pm

    "The interesting thing about adjectives is that you usually can't rank their importance very easily."

    But you can, and this rule does. It ranks them in terms of how intrinsic and fundamental they are to the object, from least to most. "Whittling knife" is essentially a compound noun, so they have to be placed together. What it's made of and where it comes from are unchangeable characteristics of it, so those have to be close. Working back from there the adjectives become more superficially descriptive and possibly changeable, and then finally subjective. You could even extend the rule to say that ownership ("Jimmy's") goes before all else, which is a fully extrinsic adjective.

  18. Spartanus said,

    September 4, 2016 @ 1:53 pm

    The British Council has this to say : .

  19. Stephen Hart said,

    September 4, 2016 @ 1:55 pm

    As a biologist, my first impression was the same as John Roth and Andrew (not the same one). There are many bird names, for example, that begin with "great," Great Gray Owl, Great Horned Owl, etc.
    Maybe a dragon is a bad choice for an example.

  20. hector said,

    September 4, 2016 @ 3:04 pm

    "Big ugly" and "ugly little" are both insults. Being big isn't in itself a bad thing, but if you're calling the person ugly, bigness magnifies the ugliness — there's just more ugliness to go around.

    If you're insulting a man, however, calling him "little" is more insulting than calling him "ugly", so "little" takes pride of place.

    In other words, the more offensive adjective comes last.

  21. Charles in Toronto said,

    September 4, 2016 @ 4:16 pm

    It's not easy to verbalize, but as an English speaker I do have some inherent sense of which adjective is coupled most tightly to the noun. "Big bad wolf" might break the order if you consider "bad" to be an opinion, but maybe "bad" is so inherent to the nature of the wolf – in a fairy tale the big bad meanie is there specifically to provide a villain – that it's coupled tightly.

    But if there's a bad little puppy in the story, its diminutive size might be more of an identifying feature than its badness, because it's not all that threatening.

  22. peterv said,

    September 4, 2016 @ 6:07 pm


    "now and then" and "then and now" have different meanings, and both are distinct from "now then".

  23. E. Bram said,

    September 4, 2016 @ 7:32 pm

    In actuality, the stated word order in that list is merely an artifact of the fundamental functioning of adjectives: in normal English, which is largely non-inflective and relies heavily on word order to modify sentence meaning, an adjective acts as a function that operates on (modifies) a single unit, that unit being defined by the modifiers and noun that follow.

    Thus, "lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife" really means, functionally, "lovely (little (old (rectangular (green (French (silver (whittling knife)))))))." Usually, that logically leads to the default order discussed above. However, it's not always so. Word order can be changed in order to change specific meaning or intended emphasis, and therefore a good writer not only does not need to, but should not memorize that list. To emphasize "French whittling knife" as a particular type of knife, for instance, a good writer may write "… silver French whittling knife" (a French whittling knife that happens to be made of silver) instead of "… French silver whittling knife" (a silver whittling knife made in France or in the French style). The fact that the order of "silver French whittling knife" violates that list is of no consequence; the good writer chooses word order to convey to the reader the precise emphasis or shade of meaning desired.

    It's one of the glories of English that word order can thus be used to unambiguously convey so many different shades of meaning. This is more difficult with inflected languages because they rely on word endings to convey a particular function of a word within a sentence by establishing its "case." But so many intended meanings are possible that to do this successfully and unambiguously would require an almost infinite number of different "cases." That's why inflected languages like Latin end up evolving so that each "case" can be used in many different ways. That's why in Latin there are so many different types of genitive, different types of dative, etc. The case of a word therefore cannot always convey its meaning but the reader must additionally rely heavily on context.

    For example, look at Seneca's famous epigram, "non vitae discimus, sed scholae." Any student of Latin confronting that sentence for the first time is going to have difficulty understanding its meaning without examining the context of the entire conversation to arrive at the conclusion that we're dealing with dative of purpose.

    And there are times when context is not enough, so that even Latin has to sometimes rely on word order. Contrast that with English. There are only a limited number of cases in an inflected language, but the number of different combinations of words in a sentence is huge, allowing for a tremendous variation in meaning by relying on word order instead of inflection.

  24. AntC said,

    September 4, 2016 @ 7:50 pm

    The Cooper & Ross paper seems to explain ordering as much by sound pattern or "ease of processing" as by semantics/category of the adjective.

    I've got to ask: is that title "World Order" like it's about geopolitics; or a typo for "Word Order"? The photostat Mark linked to (seems to be a draft) has an 'l' in the title, but also an asterisk like it's an edit mark. (I can't relate it to a footnote.)

    [(myl) It's a pun. The asterisk leads to the footnote at the bottom of the first page that says

    *© William E. Cooper / John Robert Ross 1975

    And it's not a draft, it's just a workshop publication from the 1975 version of "camera ready copy" which would have been produced by that antique implement, the typewriter.]

    The last line has a (feeble) pun on Rousseau/Marx "Whorfians of the World! Unite! You have nothing to lose but your brains." And the last paragraph of the conclusion talks about "… a general framework of man's [sic] view of himself in the world."f

    [(myl) Actually they use the term "Whorfers" rather than "Whorfians"; and the start with a confession: "we hereby forsake the guise of linguistics proper and admit to being card-carrying Whorfers". In the context of 1975 MIT linguistics, this was roughly equivalent to proclaiming oneself a communist in (say) 1955 Washington DC.]

    Was that obliqueness considered edgy in 1975?

    [(myl)Snarky, maybe; oblique, no.]

  25. Ben Zimmer said,

    September 4, 2016 @ 7:56 pm

    Neal Whitman had a nice post about adjective ordering on his Literal-Minded blog in 2011.

  26. J.W. Brewer said,

    September 4, 2016 @ 8:02 pm

    I was explicitly taught the rule for ordering the elements of German sentences when taking German-for-Anglophone-teenagers in school circa 1980, from which I infer that it was believed that L1 Anglophones learning German would not reliably put things in that order if left to their own uninstructed devices. The advantage of learning it as an arbitrary element of a foreign language's syntax is that it felt okay for it to be purely arbitrary — there was no temptation to promulgate a Big Theory about What It Meant in terms of the inherent hierarchy of the cosmos or even the German national character. We are perhaps more prone to think that structural features of our native tongue ought to Mean Something rather than just be purely arbitrary? I have no idea whether German native-speakers are taught the same rule explicitly in school versus just picking it up by osmosis (and perhaps tacitly following it without being able to explicitly formulate it) or whether indeed it may be, for native speakers, a mere statistical tendency with lots of exceptions.

  27. Boudica said,

    September 4, 2016 @ 8:26 pm

    Now I'm curious about other languages. I know in French some adjectives go before the noun and some after. My French is rusty but would a string of adjectives after the noun go in reverse order? A magnificent blue pool in English. Une piscine bleu magnifique in French?

  28. Zeppelin said,

    September 4, 2016 @ 9:13 pm

    J.W. Brewer:

    I seem to recall that we were taught about the rule at one point in German class (i.e. combined literature/spelling/essay writing/grammar class), but it was presented as an interesting observation, not something we as native speakers would need to explicitly learn. Which suggests that speakers don't usually get it wrong — many other aspects of Standard German grammar and syntax do need to be learned in school because they don't come naturally to speakers of vernacular or dialectal varieties.
    I couldn't say how representative my experience is, seeing as the German school system varies a lot between states and is also constantly undergoing half-baked curriculum reforms.

  29. Boudica said,

    September 4, 2016 @ 10:05 pm


  30. Keith said,

    September 5, 2016 @ 1:47 am

    @Boudica: "une magnifique piscine bleue".

    I seem to remember that the order of qualifiers is discussed in Baker's "The Atoms of Language"

  31. DB said,

    September 5, 2016 @ 8:43 am

    There is one small factual error in this article. Tolkien was not "disenheartened" by being told he had to write "great green dragon." -When telling this anecdote, he simply remarked of the rule, "I wondered why, and still do."

    [(myl) The source of the "disenheartened" characterization is Mark Forsyth's book, not "this article".]

  32. Szwagier said,

    September 5, 2016 @ 11:31 am

    What about swearwords? In my mind there's a fairly clear difference between "a big bad effing wolf" and "an effing big bad wolf". In the second the swearword feels like it's modifying "bad" rather than "wolf". OTOH, in the first, it's clearly modifying "wolf" and I would hazard it's an opinion rather than anything more solid. Is this just another case of swearwords being extremely syntactically flexible?

  33. Julieo said,

    September 5, 2016 @ 3:07 pm

    English is not a language of rules in general, more of emphasis, sound and flow which is why it works so well in song. It is a language which is easier to learn to speak than write and can be understood even when not spoken quite how we are used to hearing it.

  34. Y said,

    September 5, 2016 @ 3:23 pm

    Considering prosody (asterisks meaning 'less acceptable than the alternative'):

    Big beautiful house — *Beautiful big house
    *Enormous nice house — Nice enormous house
    Enormous hideous house — *Hideous enormous house
    *Little nice house — Nice little house
    Big ugly house — *Ugly big house
    Big hideous house — *Hideous big house

    I think prosody is indeed a factor.

  35. David P said,

    September 5, 2016 @ 7:37 pm

    @Szwagier – Not really on topic, but this reminds me of a conversation I heard once:

    25-ish new employee – "On my way to work I crossed paths with the biggest fucking rat I've ever seen…. Oh, I'm sorry; is that inappropriate language?"
    60-ish employee – "I can't say because I haven't seen the rat."

  36. Martha said,

    September 5, 2016 @ 9:21 pm

    Szwagier, I didn't read "effing" in "effing big bad wolf" as modifying "big" in my first reading of the phrase. It seems to me it could be modifying the whole thing or just "big," depending on the amount of stress on "big" (probably paired with a bit of a pause after "big").

  37. Bill Benzon said,

    September 6, 2016 @ 5:37 am

    As I was reading this I heard my father's voice reading Kipling's "The Elephant's Child" to me. You know the sentence: Then Kolokolo Bird said, with a mournful cry, ‘Go to the banks of the great grey-green, greasy Limpopo River, all set about with fever-trees, and find out.’

  38. Graeme said,

    September 6, 2016 @ 7:06 am

    I should apologise to Mark L for emailing him the BBC tweet on the very day he had already posted this great entry.

    If this word order formula is quite strict, can someone explain why I must describe this as 'his big linguistic claim'. But not 'big his linguistic claim'? Isn't 'his' here a posessive-case adjective? It certainly functions as a very specific type of 'origin' qualifier.

    Is it simply that the second word order sounds wonky because any adjectives before the 'his' (or 'your' or 'Mark Fowler's') will feel like they qualify that person rather than the noun?

    Forgive me I'm not a linguist and am thinking from first principles.

  39. Martha said,

    September 6, 2016 @ 10:16 am

    Graeme, "his" is a possessive determiner, and determiners come before adjectives. (They get called adjectives, but they function as determiners.)

  40. James Wimberley said,

    September 6, 2016 @ 10:46 am

    The syntactic hierarchy seems to break down when you substitute the sort of abstract and blurry adjectives that belong in a buzzphase generator. A "disruptive matrix dynamic intercultural paradigm" is as good, or bad, as an "intercultural dynamic matrix disruptive paradigm", with the order reversed.

  41. BZ said,

    September 6, 2016 @ 11:07 am

    Without knowing anything about whittling knives, "green rectangular" sounds a lot better than "rectangular green". They both get roughly the same number of GHits. And then there's silver which has a color component even when it describes the material, so "green silver" may need to be closer together to accentuate that silver is not (also) the color.

    Also, "big bad wolf" and (by extension?) "big bad" anything is a set phrase, so you can't really draw any conclusions from it. The same can be said for "lovely little" (notice notice that "lovely big" doesn't work) and "little old" (not "little new"; "big old" means something else)

  42. Francois Lang said,

    September 6, 2016 @ 12:53 pm

    FWIW, Forsyth's book was reviewed in the Wall Street Journal nearly 2 years ago

    with a bunch of interesting comments — though not as insightful as those here!

  43. Kaleberg said,

    September 6, 2016 @ 1:44 pm

    A few thoughts:

    1) This may a relic of the French beauty-age-goodness-size rule for placing adjectives before as opposed to after the nouns that they modify. The rule for English starts with opinion-size-age up front which is suggestive.

    2) There are two types of adjectives, limiting and descriptive. I think they stack in different ways.

    3) There is some rule about the need for a comma in parallel adjectival sequences as in "a bright red, half full bucket". This could screw up n-gram analysis if it ignores commas.

    4) I remember learning a little about this in high school, but high school level grammar books omit it. College grammar books tend to include it.

  44. Steven Bedrick said,

    September 6, 2016 @ 1:55 pm

    I'm a bit late to the game, but I'd be remiss if I didn't link to two of my favorite papers from MSR's Margaret Mitchell on the subject, looking at data/corpus-driven approaches to identifying pronominal modifier patterns:

    1. Dunlop, A., Mitchell, M., and Roark, B. (2010). Prenominal Modifier Ordering via Multiple Sequence Alignment. Proceedings of NAACL-HLT 2010.

    2. Mitchell, M., Dunlop, A., and Roark, B. (2011). Semi-Supervised Modeling for Prenominal Modifier Ordering. Proceedings of ACL 2011.

  45. Simon said,

    September 6, 2016 @ 8:53 pm

    The phrase "big bad wolf" is actually an 'ablaut' which Mark discusses in the paragraph that follows the one at the top of this post.

    He also goes into detail about it here

  46. Mike said,

    September 6, 2016 @ 10:58 pm

    @peterv: Now, now!

  47. beowulf888 said,

    September 8, 2016 @ 12:21 pm

    Well, ham only precedes eggs if the the eggs aren't green… ;-)

    "They consider a wide range of cases like 'cat and mouse', 'then and now', 'here and there', 'long and short', 'ham and eggs', 'meat and potatoes', etc."

  48. Jeff W said,

    September 8, 2016 @ 9:44 pm

    Jason A. Quest

    "The interesting thing about adjectives is that you usually can't rank their importance very easily."

    But you can, and this rule does. It ranks them in terms of how intrinsic and fundamental they are to the object, from least to most.

    That was my impression also. But the rule is provisional in that other factors (e.g., phrases like “big bad wolf” being a “set phrase” or an ablaut or whatever) play a role.

    And whatever English speakers “don’t know they know,” this English speaker certainly knew it. I learned the rule explicitly in 7th-grade English class (1974).

  49. Doug Chitwood said,

    September 9, 2016 @ 1:34 pm

    Wow. I'm sticking to engineering. Thank God for tech writers!

  50. Jenny said,

    September 9, 2016 @ 3:40 pm

    Read Metaphors We Live By (Lakoff & Johnson 2003, 2nd ed. ) Ch. 20. CLOSENESS IS STRENGTH OF EFFECT. Conceptual basis for ordering that then gets grammaticalized/lexicalized through set phraseology (as evidenced in your corpus results.)

  51. Sony Buys Film Rights to Memoir by Astronaut Scott Kelly said,

    September 13, 2016 @ 12:14 pm

    […] the English language's unique grammar has gone viral, but not all linguists are in his camp. Language Log's Mark Liberman deconstructs this formula (as originally presented in a book by Mark Forsyth) to show that it's not quite as simple as […]

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