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.

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“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.