the mighty pomegranate (whymzycal) wrote in fandom_grammar,
the mighty pomegranate

Editorial: "The Secret Rules of Adjective Order

In August of last year, Slate writer Katy Waldman tackled the tricky issue of adjective order and whether it’s important in spoken and written English. Her article describes GSSSACPM, which is the generally agreed-upon order of adjectives describing a particular noun: “general opinion then specific opinion then size then shape then age then color then provenance then material” (bold emphasis mine). But of course it’s not quite as simple as all that, as Waldman goes on to explain. I’ll admit that some of her explanation seemed needlessly convoluted to me, but her examples helped to clear up what she meant, which I appreciated. So overall, I liked this article. I even learned several new things, which is something I always enjoy doing.

The most important rule to understand about adjective order, it seems, is that the adjectives should get more permanent the closer we get to the noun being described. So there’s a big difference between “fake Malaysian ivory,” or ivory that claims to be from Malaysia, and “Malaysian fake ivory,” or false ivory manufactured in Malaysia. That’s a nice, simple illustration of this principle, one that Waldman uses to great effect. Things get a little more complicated when she drops into the hows and whys of breaking the rules of GSSSACPM, but I think she pulled it off pretty well.

As Waldman explains, when we mix up the order of adjectives and put the more “permanent” descriptors further from the noun and ignore GSSSACPM, we probably have a good reason for it: we want to emphasize a particular trait in an unusual way, like “big bad wolf.” In this instance, the wolf is primarily bad and big secondarily, rather than primarily big and bad secondarily—his badness is his most defining characteristic, which is why we put the bad, something that would normally be considered nothing more than an opinion, in the most important spot: right next to the noun. If we followed GSSSACPM, we should write “bad big wolf,” putting opinion before size, instead of “big bad wolf.” But we don’t, because the wolf’s badness is his most important, defining characteristic, and we want people to know it. We can’t convey that information quickly or easily if we follow the “rules” of adjective order, so we break the rules (or, I might argue, create a new exception).

Now, Waldman makes that point in fewer words than I did, and she uses more than one example. But I had to stop and think about what she really meant for a minute, and the paragraph above is how my thought process unraveled. Once I got it, though, I really got it.

I’d never bothered to consider why adjective order is important—I just knew that adjectives tended to stack up in a certain way, and when someone bobbled the order, it would usually make my eye twitch … unless, of course, I could see the logic of a particular trait being emphasized in a different way. I wasn’t fully, consciously aware of that distinction until now, however. And that’s a good thing to know since I can now explain more thoroughly when I beta why a particular description is or isn’t working for me: is it a bad wolf who’s big, a big wolf who’s bad, or a wolf who’s equally bad and big? Because the differences between the three, while subtle, are still present.

Once that bit of knowledge was firmly cemented, I wanted to know if English is the only language that tends to impose a particular order, and this particular order (GSSSACPM), on adjectives. Nope. According to Waldman and her posse of experts, the speakers of most languages do pretty much the same thing that we do, in pretty much the same way, for pretty much the same reasons.

So while I had to stop and think in a few spots, I have to say that overall, this article was really interesting, informative, and even enjoyable. Waldman answered all my questions, even questions I didn’t know I’d have, like adjective order in other languages. I also liked that Waldman included links to explanations of certain grammar terms that her readers might know the gist of but not be 100% familiar with—the difference between “prescriptive” and “descriptive” grammarians, for instance.

If you’re interested in more about adjectives once you’ve read Waldman’s piece or you’re interested in adjectives but don’t want to bother with the Waldman article, we have some pretty great answers and tutorials about adjectives here on Fandom Grammar. Just hop on over to the Parts of Speech: Adjectives tag and have a look around. For a different but equally enlightening explanation of adjective order, see the Fandom Grammar article by our very own ariestess, which you can find here.
Tags: author:whymzycal, editorial, pos:adjectives

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