Rules You Didn’t Know You Knew @JMmystery

Jeanne Matthews is the author of the Dinah Pelerin international mysteries published by Poisoned Pen Press. Like her amateur sleuth, Jeanne was born with a serious wanderlust. Originally from Georgia, she enjoys traveling the world and learning about other cultures and customs, which she incorporates into her novels. She currently lives in Renton, Washington with her husband who is a law professor. Where the Bones Are Buried, the fifth book in the series, is in bookstores now . You can learn more about Jeanne’s books at

Adjectives in the English language absolutely have to come in a specific order:  opinion-size-age-shape-color-origin-material-purpose and then the noun.  You know this rule instinctively whether you realize it or not.  Mark Forsyth points out our surprising secret knowledge in his delightful book The Elements of Eloquence.  “You can have a lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife,” he says, “but if you mess with that word order in the slightest, you’ll sound like a maniac.”  It’s true.  A rectangular silver French old little lovely whittling green knife just doesn’t parse.  Apparently, textbooks that are used to teach English to non-native speakers spell out this rule in detail and students are required to memorize it.  I never had to learn this.  In fact I don’t think it was mentioned in any English class I ever took.  It kinda makes you wonder if language is somehow innate.

Of course there’s always an exception to frustrate the non-native student trying to master English.  Following the rule and putting opinion before size, the student would describe the wolf in Grimms’ Fairy Tales as a bad, big wolf.  We homegrown experts know that’s wrong automatically, without giving it a thought.  That’s because we’ve been obeying the rule of ablaut reduplication all our lives.  When you repeat a word with a different vowel, the order is always I before A before O, as in splish-splash, ding-dong, hip-hop, tick-tock, and tit-for-tat.  One does not zag-zig or flop-flip or cross-criss.  It’s the law.

Our ears seem pre-programmed for the rhythm of the tmesis.  Tmesis is the splitting of a compound word into parts by inserting another word, primarily for emphasis.  We say abso-blooming-lutely, never ab-blooming-solutely or absolute-blooming-ly.  We say un-freaking-believable, but it would sound odd to hear un-be-freaking-lievable.  An Australian author named John O’Grady wrote a poem about a town in New South Wales called Tumbarumba in which he made extensive use of the tmesis.  The poem concludes with a bloke “up at Tumba bloody Rumba shooting kanga-bloody-roos.”  Tumbarumba has since become a technical linguistic term meaning a word inside another.

Not only do we have an intuitive understanding of word order, but we’re whizzes with approximately twenty complicated tenses even if we can’t name them all.  Imagine having to explain to a French speaker that the English don’t usually use the present tense for things that are happening in the present.  “I walk my dog” doesn’t mean I’m doing it this minute.  It means I do it regularly.  If I were doing it now, I’d use the present progressive tense.  “I’m walking my dog.”  Having passed through the neighborhood with my dog on prior occasions and seen the warning signs on the lawns, I might remark in the pluperfect progressive passive, “I knew I’d been being watched.”

The phrasal verb is a breeze to us, but the bane of every would-be English speaker.  “I can’t put up with the guy I’m putting up at my house.  He’s such a put-on and his put-downs put me out.  And you wouldn’t believe the food he can put away.”  The various idiomatic meanings don’t faze us.  We can stick out this interloper’s stay, sort out his rude behavior, and deal with the problem even if we’re being put upon.

Then there’s the animacy hierarchy scale.  It indicates the decreasing order of humanness from human to animal to object and lets us know how to show possession.  My friend is human so I refer to my friend’s car rather than the car of my friend.  But when I visit her, I go through the door of her house.  The scale can of course be tinkered with to amusing effect as Clive James did in his poem, “The Book of My Enemy Has Been Remaindered.”

Hyperbaton is the rhetorical term for placing words out of order in a sentence and as Mark Forsyth takes pleasure in reminding us, it can make for some memorable lines.  But like a certain enigmatic, small, ancient, pointy-eared, green, Jedi Master, once you start breaking the rules, consume you it will.

5 thoughts on “Rules You Didn’t Know You Knew @JMmystery

  1. I had an English teacher tell our class one year that our language was the most complicated of all. I believe it. I never heard of opinion-size-age-shape-color-origin-material-purpose and then the noun, yet it doesn’t sound right any other way. Cute post. Interesting.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The rest of this makes perfect sense to me, but “un-be-freaking-lievable” is something I use all the time! (Well, occasionally substituting a different f-word as called for). Possibly because “be” is a word as well as a syllable?

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I had an unusual tmesis experience last year, when I spotted a height-challenged young man of African-American ancestry on my college campus. It was the first time I had spotted a “little person” of color and when I got back to my office I wanted to mention it to a colleague. I stumbled on “Black little person” because my instinct was to put the size first– little Black person. But because “little person” is a thing itself, you can’t break it up.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I always learn something from you, Jeanne! I only recently heard of the ‘opinion-size-age-shape-color-origin-material-purpose’ rule — although I had indeed been using it intuitively all my conscious life. But I had not heard the ‘I before A before O’ rule spelled out, so to speak.

    Great fun, as always! Thanks, Jeanne!


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