Tuesday, June 6, 2017

The Hidden Rules of English

Everyone has tun into one of those people online. The type of people who consider the rules of grammar not to be a free-flowing and ever-changing agreement in language, but a list of rules received on stone tablets from the nearest holy mountain. But there are hidden, fugitive rules of English not written down in the textbooks so beloved by the amateur grammarians:
“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.”

English speakers love to learn this sort of thing for two reasons. First, it astonishes us that there are rules that we didn’t know that we knew. That’s rather peculiar, and rather exciting. We’re all quite a lot cleverer than we think we are. And there’s the shock of realising that there’s a reason there may be little green men on Mars, but there certainly aren’t green little men. Second, you can spend the next hour of your life trying to think of exceptions, which is useful as it keeps you from doing something foolish like working. 
Actually, there are a couple of small exceptions. Little Red Riding Hood may be perfectly ordered, but the Big Bad Wolf seems to be breaking all the laws of linguistics. Why does Bad Big Wolf sound so very, very wrong? What happened to the rules?
For the answer, and more of these invisible rules of grammar, check out Mark Forsyth's article at the BBC.

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