You Know More Grammar Than You Think

If you are a native speaker of English, you get English grammar right about 95% of the time. I fabricated that statistic, but I suspect I'm correct nevertheless. You know when a noun needs an article, and you know whether to use the definite article (the) or an indefinite article (a/an). You can form the passive voice or a nominative absolute all day long, with your eyes closed. You know that an adjective goes before the noun it modifies (you always say the blue truck and never the truck blue), and you also know that an adjectival clause goes after the noun it modifies (you always say the truck that belongs to my dad and never the that belongs to my dad truck).

I realize that you may not know what a nominative absolute is or an adjectival clause or a definite or indefinite article, but you've been able to handle all of them since you were in about junior high. Sure, grammar mistakes happen, usually when one grammar rule comes into conflict with another, or when the grammar itself is an exception to a logical pattern. When a toddler says, "I eated my breakfast," she isn't being illogical, but overly logical. She is depending on good logic--the application of a pattern--when she needs to depend instead on something like rote memory. What surprises me is not the prevalence of grammar errors, but their relative scarcity. 

Here's an exercise that should prove my point about your being a grammar genius. In the following examples, I will give you a noun preceded by a string of adjectives modifying that noun. The adjectives will be in alphabetical order. Pull out a pen and a piece of paper, and for each example put the adjectives in the correct order, according to the rules for ordering adjectives.

For instance, I would give you 

  • big fat Greek my wedding,

and you would write

  • my big fat Greek wedding.

I assume you can't list the rules for ordering adjectives; I know I can't. But I have a feeling we're all going to have the same answers, because we have been speaking English long enough to know these rules that we can't articulate. 

  1. German round-faced man
  2. Canadian tiny young pianist
  3. bread* delightful green rectangular wooden box (*as in, the box is used for holding bread)
  4. alligator-skin duck-hunting enormous red boots

In his book The Elements of Eloquence, Mark Forsyth writes, 

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.

It is true that there is a little bit of flexibility. According to the above rule, you should say "old round-faced man." But if you were to say "round-faced old man" nobody would mistake you for a maniac. Nevertheless, it is remarkable that we all carry that unspoken list in our heads--opinion-size-age-shape-color-origin-material-purpose--and that we would immediately notice if anybody got that list wrong, even though almost none of us could articulate the list.

Since I'm on the subject of adjectives, let me remind you that piling up adjectives is usually not the best way to make your prose more descriptive. And also, the rules of adjective-order don't apply when you move your adjectives to the predicate spot (the man is round-faced and German) nor do they apply to adjective clauses or phrases (the round-faced man from Germany).

Oh, and one more thing: you may have been taught to put commas between adjectives when you have more than one modifying the same noun (the round-faced, German man). Here's a better guide: put a comma between two adjectives IF AND ONLY IF it would make sense to put the word and between the adjectives. Since you wouldn't say the round-faced and German man, you wouldn't write the round-faced, German man. But since you might say the big and ugly German man, you could write the big, ugly German man (though I would probably omit that comma too). 

Ok, now to the answers to the above exercises:

  1. round-faced German man (shape, origin)
  2. tiny young Canadian pianist (size, age, origin)
  3. delightful rectangular green wooden bread box (opinion, shape, color, material, purpose)
  4. enormous red alligator-skin duck-hunting boots (size, color, material, purpose)

Is that what you got?

As always, you can ask a question for a future issue of The Habit by sending me an email