Why Do We Say “Big Red Barn,” but “Red Big Barn” Sounds Wrong?

Language and how we use it.
Aug. 6 2014 9:39 AM

The Secret Rules of Adjective Order

A long fascinating article—or is it a fascinating long article?

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Is this a big brown dog or a brown big dog?

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Silense/iStock/Thinkstock

It is a lovely warm August day outside, and I am wearing a green loose top. Does the second part of that sentence sound strange to you? Perhaps you think I should have written “loose green top.” You’re not wrong (though not entirely right, because descriptivist linguistics): An intuitive code governs the way English speakers order adjectives. The rules come so naturally to us that we rarely learn about them in school, but over the past few decades language nerds have been monitoring modifiers, grouping them into categories, and straining to find logic in how people instinctively rank those categories.

Katy Waldman Katy Waldman

Katy Waldman is a Slate staff writer. 

If you’re someone whose reflexes scatter the moment you try to lift the veil on your unconscious, this fascinating little-known field (little-known fascinating field?) will drive you nuts. On the other hand, thinking about how adjectives work may bounce you to an epistemological Zen state, wherein you can contemplate amid flutes what it means to partake of Redness and whether former child actress means something different from child former actress. Adjectives are where the elves of language both cheat and illumine reality.

Maybe I am overqualifying this article about qualifiers (or is that the point?).

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Linguists have broken the adjectival landmass into several regions. They are: general opinion or quality (“exquisite,” “terrible”), specific opinion or quality (“friendly,” “dusty”), size, shape, age, color, origin, and material. Generally, modifiers from the same region can be strung together in any order. Thomas Wolfe, writing in Look Homeward, Angel of “blistered varnished wood” and “fat limp underdone bacon,” could also have said “varnished blistered wood” or “limp fat underdone bacon.” (All five examples count as “specific opinion” words.) Likewise, if the woman in “The Idea of Order at Key West” had walked along the “tragic-gestured, ever-hooded sea,” instead of the “ever-hooded, tragic-gestured sea,” probably no one would have sent the grammar cops after Wallace Stevens.

On his blog, the linguist Neal Whitman calls adjectives from the same semantic region—the ones where swapping their placement in a sentence neither sounds strange nor scrambles the meaning—correlative. Correlative adjectives often, though not always, announce themselves through commas, and they are good at modifying nouns without talking much to each other, like exes at a mutual friend’s wedding. (Commas themselves are a more complicated matter, says John T. Beavers, a professor of linguistics at the University of Texas at Austin. Because they often function as pauses, they can isolate an adjective from whatever flow might otherwise sweep it under, abetting Adjective Order Crimes.)

Whitman distinguishes between correlative pairs of modifiers and the fussier cumulative ones. These, read in succession in a sentence, accrete sense in a specific way. For example, consider the subset of adjectives called operators, which often take part in cumulative constructions. Such terms—“former,” “alleged,” “fake”—fundamentally change the meaning of whatever follows. (An “alleged” thief may not be a thief at all.) Therefore, when dealing with operators, the precise idea you want to express determines the order of adjectives, and a furniture dealer is not at liberty to oscillate between “fake Malaysian ivory”—a material masquerading as Malaysian ivory—and “Malaysian fake ivory”—a not-ivory material from Malaysia. (For more on operator adjectives, also known as non-intersective adjectives, and their role in possible adjective ordering, I mean possible role in adjective ordering, check out Alexandra Teodorescu’s 2006 paper for the 25th West Coast Conference on Formal Linguistics.)

But what about modifiers that sound good in one order and bad in another, even if they convey the same meaning both ways? Though red big barns and big red barns are semantically identical, the second kind pleases our ears more. These tricky situations—neither pure correlation nor accumulation—generally occur when you cross the border between adjectival regions, such as size and color. When that happens, an invisible code snaps into place, and the eight categories shimmy into one magistral conga line: general opinion then specific opinion then size then shape then age then color then provenance then material.

All of which can get really confusing. For one thing, it’s hard to remember. (GSSSACPM isn’t that sticky of an acronym.) Plus, the boundary between a “general” and a “specific” opinion seems thin, with words like beautiful or sweet evoking both discrete, somewhat measurable qualities and nebulous curtains of approval. A few linguists also contest the placing of shape before age, or size after opinion. (Sure, “mean little terrier” works better than “little mean terrier,” but doesn’t a large comfortable armchair sound nicer than its inverse? And what about the trump card suggested to me by the son of one Slate colleague: “BIG STINKY FART”?) 

Still, corpora studies confirm that GSSSACPM prevails in most instances of written English. In 2003, Stephanie Wulff used a computer program to comb through thousands of texts—she found that 78 percent of adjective strings followed the rule. More minutely, when Carnegie Mellon’s Enrica Rosato searched the Corpus of Contemporary American English for occurrences of “big red [noun]” versus “red big [noun],” she turned up 382 instances of “big red” to zero of “red big” 

Is there some hidden logic underpinning this arrangement, or is it arbitrary? Since GSSSACPM more or less applies to languages around the world, many linguists think we want ripe to precede yellow for a reason. “It’s possible that these elements of universal grammar clarify our thought in some way,” says Barbara Partee, a professor emeritus of linguistics and philosophy at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. Yet when the human race tacitly decided that shape words go before color words go before origin words, it left no record of its rationale.

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