Monday 19 September 2016

hmmm, not written in stone

About a week ago, The Boy sent out a link to a page about the ordering of English adjectives by native anglophones.  It's pitched as one of those unspoken rules that native speakers pick up in that miraculous Chomskian Universal Grammar way. Then a couple of days ago, I find another link to the ordering of English adjectives, which is different. Via Metafilter which quotes another source "this is a meticulously taught rule for non-native English speakers". The deal is that this ordering is a shibboleth that enables natives to smoke out the Danes and Dutch people who appear to speak perfect unaccented English with far fewer grammatical errors than I might make. In other words its like Nederlanders catching moffen and other foreigners because they don't clear their throat convincingly when saying schild or Scheveningen. Here are the two options:
opinion - size - age - shape - colour - origin - material - purpose
tweeted by Matthew Anderson from the book Elements of Eloquence by Mark Forsyth
opinion - size - physical quality - shape - age - colour - origin - material - type - purpose
lifted from the Cambridge Dictionary.

Just so you can appreciate that this is an issue, note that French has a totally different set of conventions. Some, mostly descriptive, adjective are placed after the noun: just last week I lent ma blouse blanche to a french Erasmus student; feeling good about myself, I had une tasse du thé sucré. But descriptive adjective considered to be 'inherent qualities' - they go before the noun. Teachers of french as a foreign language use the mnemonic BAGS - Beauty Age Good/bad Size to help their students avoid pitfalls: un petit problème [size] etc. it's more complicated than that: un grand homme has an allowable but different meaning to un homme grand.

The key difference in the two sets of English rules, apart from having more categories in the second list, is that age and shape are transposed in the two lists. Science is driven forward by evidence. When you have two competing statements and you wish to determine which, if any, hold the truth, you can refer to authority or you can work it out from your own experience. If you're reading this in Novosibirsk or Madrid, you're snookered for the latter option and have to decide whether Cambridge Dictionary trumps Mark Forsyth. Forsyth has a wikipedia entry but so does the Cambridge Advance Learners Dictionary. So that isn't going to help much.  The Cambridge page offers two sentences to indicate correct usage:
It was made of a strange [1] green [6] metallic [8] material
It's a long [4] narrow [8] plastic [10] brush
This is clearly internally inconsistent: category [8] is used for both 'narrow' and 'metallic'. In the second sentence it looks like there are three [3!] categorisation typos and it should read:
It's a long [2] narrow [4] plastic [8] brush
(That is assuming that long is more about size [2] than shape [4] which isn't obvious to all thinking people. My much loved Chambers 20thC Dictionary after all has this waggish [previously blobbed] definition: ECLAIR A cake, long in shape but short in duration.)
With this careless error, the Cambridge site is rapidly losing credibility and authority. I tell my students (and anyone else who will  listen) to apply the Fodor's Guide test of credibility.  Suppose you're going on holiday for the first time to Greece. Ryanair limits your baggage and you'd rather pack another pair of dancing shoes than more paper, so you can only afford one guide book. Which is it to be? Frommer? Fodor? Lonely Planet? Rough Guide? You know nothing about Greece so cannot verify any statements in the books. But you do live somewhere and there will be a guide to that place from each of those publishers. If Fodor's Dublin claims, erroneously, that O'Connell Street is South of the Liffey then you can assume that their attention to detail about Thessaloniki is also weak and go buy one of the other options.

And on the substantive issue: should the adj-order be: age - shape or shape - age?
Is it
he found an old square trunk in the attic 
he found a square old trunk in the attic
I think the former so one point to Forsyth.  But then
The old chap fancied young fat tottie
sounds not right (and they both sound a little seepy) and prefer
The old chap fancied fat young tottie
which gives a point to Cambridge.  And The Beloved agrees with my assessment. So maybe this is another Rule that we (whether from Coventry or Copenhagen) can take with a generous pinch of salt.

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