Point of order

Which should come first, the name of the thing you are talking about, or its qualities? In English, the name of the thing (the noun) usually comes second. In some other languages, it comes first. So while we would say “red stick”, the French would say “baton rouge.”

There’s logic in putting the modifiers on the back end. It instantly announces what you are talking about, and your readers can adjust their mental picture of it as you supply the details. The U.S. military adopts this form for issuing supplies: blanket, wool, brown, thin, scratchy.

Some authorities claim that English has its own logic when you want to line up adjectives. One such authority is London author Mark Forsyth, who claims, “…adjectives in English absolutely have to be in this order: opinion-size-age-shape-colour-origin-material-purpose Noun.” He gives the example of “a lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife.”

If you mess with that order, Forsyth says, you’ll sound like a maniac.

But over at the University of Pennsylvania, linguist Mark Liberman isn’t so sure about that. He’d call the ranking more of a preference than a strict hierarchy, and notes that while it’s common to write “a beautiful little” something, it’s also common to write “a big beautiful” something.

At the bottom of Liberman’s blog post, you’ll discover than an amazing number of people like to discuss this sort of thing.

What no one seems to ask, however, is why people are front-loading so many adjectives on the poor little noun in the first place. Instead of worrying about how to arrange a laundry list of modifiers, try to engage readers with your prose. Forsyth expects you to absorb eight details about the thing he’s describing before you find out that the thing is a knife. It’s much more effective to say, “It was a lovely little knife, made for whittling. The design was French, with a rectangular case of green and silver.” Now we have a vision of someone turning the knife over in her hands, appreciating the materials, the design, the purpose.

There’s one realm where a long string of modifiers can work really well, though. That’s in a song. Harold Hill, according to Meredith Willson, is “just a bang-beat, bell-ringing, big-haul, great-go, neck-or-nothing, rip-roaring, every-time-a-bull’s-eye salesman.” And thanks to Sheb Wooley, we know to beware of the one-eyed, one-horned, flying purple people eater. Find a catchy tune, and Forsyth’s knife could be a hit.

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