You won’t believe this secret rule that you know without ever being taught!

by Honolulu Mother

Ha, sorry, creeping Buzzfeeditis strikes again.

I am of course referring to the recent story about how there’s a fairly complex order in which adjectives modifying a noun must be listed, that native speakers use without realizing that they even know it because it just sounds wrong otherwise. Here’s the BBC article on it.

Why the green great dragon can’t exist

Do you think that order is correct? Can you think of other grammatical rules that we don’t know we know?

(And speaking of clickbait, did you see the professor who played with a #clickbaitsyllabus on Twitter recently?

You won’t believe how this college prof clickbaited students. Or what happened next.

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58 thoughts on “You won’t believe this secret rule that you know without ever being taught!

  1. As my grad school Business English teacher said, most people first write the way they read, then the way they speak. People who read both regularly and widely come by this and many other grammar rules by osmosis. And, in turn generally write grammatically correct sentences even if they have a hard time with organization of the paragraph or paper. Similar is true for those who are around people who speak correclty and use a larger vocabulary, it is reflected in their writing by osmosis.

    His short hand was that people write by ear because most of what we read we “hear” in our head. He could also look at your writing an tell you about what you read quite accurately!

  2. Is this a new variation on Rumsfeld’s “known unknowns” as an “unknown known”? We know it but don’t know we know it?

    Rumsfeld stated:

    Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.

  3. “The order of adjectives, according to the book’s author Mark Forsyth, has to be: opinion-size-age-shape-colour-origin-material-purpose.”

    So, it would never be “one-eyed one-horned purple flying people-eater.”

    Or “black little dress.”

  4. One way to test it that goes beyond “does that sound right?” is with homonyms that have multiple meanings as adjectives, but these are surprisingly hard to come by.

    I want to take a long, hot bath with my wife.
    I want to take a hot, long bath with my wife.

    The order here points to different meanings of “hot.” I suppose the second sentence uses it as a matter of opinion, hopefully a mutual one. Although temperature is not listed in the author’s hierarchy (opinion-size-age-shape-color-origin-material-purpose), I think, as an intensive property immediately before color.

    “The afternoon heat was so intense, I watched someone fry an egg on a hot, black, metal car hood.”

    That seems to work, but as I was writing that sentence, I think that since the temperature is the most important adjective, it should come first. Therefore, if I wanted to point out that the shape of the surface was flat — the better for frying — I would still put the temperature first.

    “The afternoon heat was so intense, I watched someone fry an egg on a hot, flat, black, metal car hood.”

    This is more logical than

    “The afternoon heat was so intense, I watched someone fry an egg on a flat, hot, black, metal car hood.”

  5. “So, it would never be “one-eyed one-horned purple flying people-eater.””

    Or a yellow polka-dot, itsy-bitsy, teeny-weeny bikini.

  6. Milo, thank you.

    I was struggling to get over the privileged tone of yesterday’s post. I’ll leave it there, but “average” is just so tiresome. Good thing it’s so rare for us and our children to which to be exposed. (Is that right, Finn? Can’t do that dangling participle!)

    But, dammit, you’ve now got me thinking about “Itsy Bitsy.” It’s one of the first songs I memorized and never forgot. My sisters bought it on the dock for the ferry to Martha’s Vineyard in 1960 along with a wooden backscratcher that one of my sisters still has. Now that song is on a continuous loop in my head.

  7. PTM,

    Your child deserves an appropriate education where he can learn and be successful every school day. So does mine.

    Why is it so privileged to talk about what our special needs kids need?

  8. PTM, I responded to part of your comment on the other thread, just fyi, didn’t mean to single you out and you don’t need to join in unless you want to.

  9. How about “foul fetid fuming foggy filthy Philadelphia”? I think those may be all opinion. So it could be “Filthy foggy fuming fetid foul Philadelphia instead, although it wouldn’t work as well musically.

    (Someone oughta oooopen up a window!) Finn, incidentally, if you and yours haven’t seen the production of 1776 at Paliku theater, I believe they have one last show this Friday night. It’s worth seeing!

  10. Milo… Regarding: “The afternoon heat was so intense, I watched someone fry an egg on a hot, flat, black, metal car hood.”

    The editor in me says you would not need ‘hot’ in your list of modifiers as the car would have to be hot if the afternoon heat was intense. The reader would assume the car is hot.

    You can clearly argue other points,

  11. Cordelia, your pint at 1:30 is exactly on-point.
    I don’t recall anyone ever looking askance at meeting the needs of a child who tested far off the mean in one direction, nor can I understand the negativity with which meeting the needs of kids who are equally far off the norm in the opposite direction is met.
    Regarding this specific boy and this board, I don’t think complaining that we have been indifferent had the slightest bit of supporting evidence. Many of us have inquired into his needs, suggested ways they could be met, and otherwise cared about him just as much as about any other kid on here.

  12. In the metal car hood example, I think a less common adjective could be substituted for “hot” to emphasize how extreme the heat was. Or the egg could be tried in the heat radiating from the black metal car hood.

  13. HM, I’ve heard other good reviews of 1776. I’ve seen the movie multiple times; is it based on the same script?

    There are too many attractive entertainment options coming up, and too many obligations as well. If I can free up some time this weekend, I’d like to go to the Symphony opening weekend; they’re having a soloist I like a lot playing a piece I like a lot.

  14. “People who read both regularly and widely come by this and many other grammar rules by osmosis.”

    I believe we are increasingly exposed to poor writing, and learning poor writing by reading poor writing.

    One example is the common misuse of “begging the question.” People hear or read it used to mean “raising the question” and learn to use it that way, without every learning what begging the question really means. I speak from experience, having incorrectly used that phrase many times before learning its meaning.

  15. “begging the question” is one of those phrases that the intelligentsia have somehow collectively decided is going to be one of their lines in the sand between themselves and the uneducated masses. For a Slate commentor to be able to point out the “error” in another commenter’s use of it is practically an orgasmic experience for him.

    Yes, I know the correct (original) use of the term, and I do think it has a unique purpose. But as I’ve told my mom, who wages a one-woman war against the use of “impact” as a verb, sometimes we just have to let these things go as language changes.

    You also have to admit that the “wrong” use of the term makes a hell of a lot more sense than the correct one. How does an answer that essentially just re-states the question “beg” the question? It’s stupid.

  16. I dislike the way in which “myriad of” is now apparently appropriate usage. Makes me crazy.

  17. But “myriad” is both a noun and an adjective, so “myriad of” can be correct. From the OED:

    NOUN

    1A countless or extremely great number:
    networks connecting a myriad of computers

    2(Chiefly in classical history) a unit of ten thousand.

    ADJECTIVE

    1 Countless or extremely great in number:
    the myriad lights of the city

    1.1 Having countless or very many elements or aspects:
    the myriad political scene

    Myriad is derived from a Greek noun and adjective meaning ‘ten thousand.’ It was first used in English as a noun in reference to a great but indefinite number. The adjectival sense of ‘countless, innumerable’ appeared much later. In modern English, use of myriad as a noun and adjective are equally standard and correct, despite the fact that some traditionalists consider the adjective as the only acceptable use of the word.

  18. “against the use of “impact” as a verb”

    I remember when Haig was criticized a lot for that, but thinking that “impact” already was a verb, albeit not as Haig used it, e.g., impacted wisdom tooth.

  19. “Waitressing is regularly used now. When I hear that, all I can think of is “masseusing”.”

    So I guess the waitresses waitress on tables and customers.

    For quite a while, people have been using the term, “commentating,” to describe with commentators do.

  20. Yes, I know the correct (original) use of the term, and I do think it has a unique purpose. But as I’ve told my mom, who wages a one-woman war against the use of “impact” as a verb, sometimes we just have to let these things go as language changes.

    The new use of begging the question drives me up a wall, but I have come to accept it for this very reason. Language evolves.

    As for words that have been turned into verbs, “parenting” is exhibit A.

  21. When I see the word “myriad”, all I’m reminded of is the movie Heathers, which has the smart girl pretending not to be too smart to be part of the top social group. This has oddly tied yesterday’s thread and today’s together for me now.

  22. I am letting the comment at 4:06 slip by me. Nowhere have I suggested that this board has been anything less than gracious or understanding.

  23. Speaking of arguments over language and usage, I was daydreaming about boats while browsing the archives of trawlerforum last night and ended up reading through an 11-page, 200+ post argument that was ignited over the seemingly simple question “what makes a boat a trawler?”

    It went a little something like this:

    A trawler is a boat that trawls the bottom with nets for fish. End of story. So this is a trawler:

  24. Yeah, yeah, we get that, but back in the 70’s with higher fuel costs, some yacht manufacturers borrowed those same hull characteristics and designed pleasure boats with full displacement hulls that, while slow, would be both more efficient and seaworthy. This is what they designed as a trawler:

  25. No, that’s not a trawler because it doesn’t trawl for fish. It’s for pleasure cruising. It’s a cruiser.

  26. OK, but for the purposes of this discussion, the distinction would be that it has a much greater fuel capacity for longer trips, and a heavier ballast. So it’s a heavy cruiser.

  27. Milo- so funny! We traded the sailboat in for a cruiser, I call it that because “yacht” sounds wrong. we also have a single engine center console boat that I refer to as “the fishing boat” no matter who I’m talking to, I get in trouble for wrong terminology! YES I KNOW THIS WAS A PRIVILEGED POST

  28. @Milo – those slow looking pleasure trawlers seem very comfortable. They do look like mini yatchs.

  29. Louise – What’s been interesting to me is that they each have varying degrees of fitness for a particular purpose, but moving the needles in any direction brings tradeoffs of comfort, efficiency, seaworthiness, and/or cost.

    The Nordhavns are built like a tank, they can circumnavigate the globe with reasonable safety, and they’re expensive as hell and slow as balls.

    They’re powering this 47-foot, 85,000 lb boat with a single 173 hp diesel. That’s barely higher than I’ve got on my pontoon boat at the lake! That’s like an old Honda Civic engine.

    That’s why rich Totebaggers can’t get enough of them.

  30. My boat knowledge increased about a thousand-fold today.

    Reminds me though of my constant frustration with DH, who seems unable (though likely just unwilling) to learn the difference between a camper, a trailer, a motorhome, a mobile home, and a fifth wheel.

  31. “Nowhere have I suggested that this board has been anything less than gracious or understanding.”
    Bullocks! Denouncing as pompous other people’s conversation about how to help their kids use their particular skill sets as effectively as possible, simply because you’re put off that your kid didn’t get one particular tool is a slam. Go smoke yourself.

  32. “The others are cruisers. :)”

    True, true. But that does leave you lacking for a better single term to describe them other than simply listing a bunch of objective characteristics.

  33. Milo- in answer to your question – kind of, maybe a tad bigger. I love the look of those “picnic” boats. The trade offs you described on these boat choices seem tough to me. To take a term from my tech life- imagining each “use case” gets dicey. That’s how we ended up with a beautiful sailboat that didn’t fit our life… oh well, lesson learned, and we did enjoy it, but it was kind of an expensive mistake.

  34. “I love the look of those “picnic” boats.”

    It’s a Hinckley, and they certainly are charming. Built in Maine, and reminiscent of the region’s working lobster boats. They seem proud of the fact that they incorporate very little in the way of innovative or multipurpose design; when you need a boat to do something other than cruise just beyond the harbor and have a picnic at sunset, well then just buy another boat.

    Here’s a two-year-old 43′ for $1.6M:
    http://www.yachtworld.com/boats/2014/Hinckley-43-3013314/Rowayton/CT/United-States#.V-14v2Dym1s

    “always captain-maintained for the owner”

    That’s the way to do it.

    “That’s how we ended up with a beautiful sailboat that didn’t fit our life… oh well, lesson learned, and we did enjoy it, but it was kind of an expensive mistake.”

    That’s a nice experience to have had, though.

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