In Writing, The Rules Are True, Until They’re Not

The English language is a machine made by mad engineers using whatever spare parts they had at hand. The whole kit and kaboodle was not designed intelligently from the ground up — it was cobbled together over many years, MacGuyvered as new widgets are smashed indelicately into open slots, as a fan belt is replaced by the elastic in old underwear, as words are thrown into a meat grinder to lubricate the whirring gears. Because of this, English as a language is constantly evolving — and in some cases devolving. It defies easy categorization. Every rule is buried beneath a teetering Jenga tower of exceptions. For every DO THIS or DON’T DO THAT, there exist countless opposing examples illustrating glorious violations.

Of course, though, this leads some young writers to think they can just make shit up as they go, even though the reality is that they still need to learn the rules. As I am fond of saying:

We learn the rules in order to break them, and we break them in order to learn why we needed those rules in the first place.

That brings us to this bit that’s been winging around Author Social Media:

order of adjectives

(That is from a book called The Elements of Eloquence, by the way.)

I like it because it speaks to some of the unspoken, unstated patterns in language.

It’s also not entirely true.

It’s true-ish. In that it feels true, and it’s true some of the time.

(Never mind the fact that a green great dragon would be just fine, as long as we’re talking about cumulative adjectives instead of coordinate ones.)

Consider instead that the list of adjectives is subject in part to preconceived but unspoken patterns (“little old lady” is a common phrase, for instance) but also subject in part to rhythm — to the way a sentence sounds, to the way words work when spoken next to each other in a given order. Words on the page are a proxy, a middle-man. Words spoken aloud are the real deal — we form these complicated grunts and bleats and bugles in other to identify THAT THING or THIS OTHER THING or DON’T EAT THAT, IT WILL MAKE YOU SHIT UNTIL YOU DIE. The words on the page are a proxy for the spoken tongue. We do not necessarily read the words on a page aloud, but our brain still does a little trick where it translates them mostly as something we hear with our ears, not just with our mind. As such, the sound of the arrangement of words matters, even when it’s written on the page and not bugle-bleated directly into our ears.

We cleave more to the rhythm, the sound, than we do to this above pattern.

If you limit the list, restricting it to only a couple of the aforementioned adjectives, you can play with the order and see how things sound differently — and in some cases, better, when they vary from what’s noted. The book notes that shape precedes color, which would be a “rectangular, green knife.” (And yes, I’m putting commas in here because we are talking coordinate adjectives. And the list misses that a bit, because “whittling knife” is a singular object, the adjective cumulative to the noun.) But I’d argue that “green, rectangular knife” sounds — and looks — better. (By the way, what is a rectangular knife?)

Would I say “raw, red wound,” or would I say “red, raw wound?” Both sound fine to my ear. (Would “raw” be considered opinion, or material?)

Consider the issue of size — “a lovely, little knife” works fine, as per the rules. ([Opinion, size noun].) But change “little” to “large” and the rhythm changes — I no longer like “lovely, large knife,” and favor a switch up to “a large, lovely knife.” ([Size, opinion noun].) Consider that “little old lady” is, as discussed, a common phrase. But consider the phrase, “young, dumb idiot,” which to me sounds better despite it breaking the pattern.

The pattern noted is generally accurate, but it’s not written in stone, and it varies quite considerably under real world use. (I understand however that this pattern noted above is actually being taught officially in some places? Um.) Rules are rules in writing until they’re “rules,” until they flex and shift and shimmer and become something else. They’re “rules,” wink wink, nudge nudge, which is to say they change shape and become insubstantial when we need them to. And sometimes things we think are rules (“don’t use adverbs, don’t start a story with weather, don’t name a character Spaetzlenuts Amberjack Filigree, the 3rd”) are really just cultural ideas someone got a hold of and people parroted because we need a lifeboat in this formless, watery, white chaos.

At the end of the day a rule fails and falls apart when either function or style eliminate the value of the rule in the first place. Or, as the saying goes, no battle plan survives contact with the enemy. It’s good to know the rules. It’s also good to know when — and why — the rules stop working, or at least, when they stop mattering. We don’t break the laws because we love anarchy. We break them because it is the right thing to do at the time we do it. And because we jolly well fucking want to, goddamnit.

Even if it makes us sound like maniacs.

* * *


“Think Thomas Harris’ Will Graham and Clarice Starling rolled into one and pitched on the knife’s edge of a scenario that makes Jurassic Park look like a carnival ride. Another rip-roaring, deeply paranoid thriller about the reasons to fear the future.” — Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

Out now where books are sold.




20 responses to “In Writing, The Rules Are True, Until They’re Not”

  1. I’m fortunate in not knowing the rules, I suppose. Yet if it sounds good in our head it’s probably right, or good enough. Writing is highly imitative, and I’ve read a lot of books.

  2. I think you should have a flash fiction contest starring Spaetzlenuts Amberjack Filigree, the 3rd. (FYI, I’m pretty sure he’s related to John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt.)

  3. I’m not convinced this long-established linguistic pattern can be reduced to a matter of style. Word order is a fundamental aspect of linguistics and any language. Not all writing rules are about punctuation and spelling conventions. Rules we learn about where to place commas versus semi-colons, or whether something is spelled -ie- or -ei-, are not the same type of rules we learn to order verb strings, or adjective strings in this case, when we line them up together to create meaning.

    While we’re explicitly taught punctuation and spelling rules through formal education, we acquire the underlying structure of the language like subject-verb order, verb tense, verb string order and adjective string order at a young age. It’s hardwired into native speakers’ brains. For example, the verb string order is firmly set for English speakers. We wouldn’t say “she not run would” unless we’re deliberately creating another form of the language, i.e. Yoda’s sentence patterns which are largely comprehensible because they are short enough for us to quickly reorder in our minds. And we do need to reorder the words to make meaning. If someone wrote a whole novel in Yoda speak, it’d be exhausting to read.

    Sure, there are places where linguistic disorder intersects with style in written text, but few native speakers would speak these word strings out of order in their daily verbal communication, even if they deliberately choose to write them out of order for stylistic effect. In the end, finding a rhythmic sound pattern might be a reason enough to upend the expected order of the words. Emphasizing one adjective over others might be another reason. Disrupting structural expectations could also be a way to create a sense of subtextual disturbance–perhaps setting a subtle tone of discord under the meaning of the words themselves. But most of the time, writers strive for sentence fluidity, which means adhering to the patterns set into the language one is using.

    That said, lol, some of the most iconic sentences in literature break these deep, submerged linguistic patterns for effect. Shakespeare was a master at it. Of course, enallages (effective grammatical mistakes) generally need to be used sparingly, and as you say, deliberately, to create such effect. Stylistic choices that break expected patterns are distracting when overused or used without purpose. They lose their effect if they don’t stand out from the rule-abiding language flowing around them.

    Writers interested in disrupting English language patterns on purpose might check out Arthur Quinn’s nifty little book, Figures of Speech: 60 Ways to Turn a Phrase. It’s filled with great examples of wonderful literary sentences that break ordinary word order rules.

  4. I believe the order listed is true in that it gives no emphasis to any particular adjective, it is the base standard. You can change the order around a lot, but in doing so you give emphasis and change the meaning.

  5. Really enjoyed reading this because I /do/ read everything I write out loud. It’s amazing how the juxtaposition of just one word – when read out loud – can change an awkward sounding sentence/phrase into something that ‘rings like a bell’. 🙂

  6. I’m wondering if the pattern underlying this guideline (I refuse to call it a rule) doesn’t vary region to region, to a certain extent. Several of the alternatives that Chuck tossed out sound weird(er) to me; others sounded just fine. At any rate, this is definitely a tool one can listen to and use to help distinguish dialect and dialogue in writing, in some of the ways Tobias Buckell talks about.

  7. I agree with this completely. I frequently write paragraphs that my old, strict English teacher would be proud of, only to go back later and completely rearrange the sentences to sound more musical to my ear. I have a particular style preference, born of a childhood full of C.S. Lewis, Tolkien, Lewis Carroll, and Lucy Maud Montgomery, all brilliant writers who chose to cherry pick grammar rules to suit their needs.

  8. Okay, I can’t remember what this adjective-pattern thingy is called because I was only half paying attention in linguistics, but the adjective-pattern thingy is consistent in grammars across the world — in that there IS an adjective-pattern, when adjectives exist in a language. So, there’s a little more to it than style, but I can’t remember what or why that exists other than it’s related to HOW humans process information — so switching it up can be confusing. We know when something sounds wonky.

    Which you can see in action as people stumble over with Starbucks orders (which we get confused by because of the Italian-ish style): is it Soy Venti Iced Machiatto or Iced Soy Venti Machiatto or Venti Iced Soy Machiatto?

  9. I detected the faint aroma of bullshit around this post when I saw it circulating, but I couldn’t exactly articulate why. Count on Chuck to identify the stinky source.

  10. Consider that “little old lady” is, as discussed, a common phrase. But consider the phrase, “young, dumb idiot,” which to me sounds better despite it breaking the pattern.

    “Young, dumb idiot” simply adds another rule: the adjective which immediately precedes the noun is the one which is either directly equivalent or, failing that, most intrinsically linked to the noun itself, regardless of where the ordering system says it should go.

    For example, “photosynthesising green leaf” (purpose-colour-noun) rather than “green photosynthesising leaf” (colour-purpose-noun). The green colour of leaves is so distinctive to them (it’s otherwise a relatively unusual colour in nature) that it is intrinsically linked to the concept of “leaf”. Not all leaves are green, but even then the significance of greenness to leaves is such that the colour (copperbeech, variegated, autumn/fall) remains the defining characteristic.

    Similarly, “dumb” and “idiot” are directly equivalent.

    This actually reinforces the existing ordering, as it is the purpose adjective which is ordinarily most closely bound to the noun, as the function of an item ordinarily takes precedence over anything else. The rare exceptions – like green leaves, or dumb idiots – actually reinforce why it is the purpose adjective which is ordinarily the last one.

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