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This is not a rule

I tried to articulate in the post “Hide! National Grammar Day looms” a division of categories within grammar and usage to indicate that not every prescription or principle or piece of advice involves a “rule.”

Bill Walderman commented thus on that post:

Actually, English has more rules than you may think. It's just that most of them are internalized to such a degree that you're unaware of them unless you think really hard. For example, the rule against using the present perfect tense in discussing dead people. Or the rule against using "to" to link an infinitive form with a modal auxiliary. The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language consists of 1860 pages of nothing but rules of English. However, many of the rules most of us were taught in school are not rules of English.

Exactly, and I’d like to expand on that a little.

It might clarify to say that what Mr. Walderman describes as rules are structures or patterns in English, since rule implies to many readers an explicit instruction to be obeyed. There are rules for making plurals and possessives, for example. While people internalize those principles in speech, they have to be instructed how to manage them in written English.

But there are other structures or patterns that are not taught, except in ESL classes for people whose native language is not English. One example is the pattern or sequence of adjectives. When a string of adjectives precedes a noun, they follow this pattern:

article, opinion, size, age, shape, color, nationality or ethnicity, religion, material, purpose or qualifier.

You can talk or write about the old gray Presbyterian stone church without giving trouble to your audience, but a reference to the Presbyterian gray stone old church will be a problem. I suppose that you could call the sequence of adjectives a rule rather than a pattern or structure, but it is not anything that has to be taught to a native speaker.

I was trying to make much the same point yesterday in “Commas and the limits of discretion.” Students of writing have to be made to understand that, yes, there are rules of English, but there are also structures, conventions, stylistic points and other elements to be mastered to develop judgment and make writing fully effective.



Posted by John McIntyre at 2:05 PM | | Comments (10)


I'm curious: by this rule, would "the old gray stone Presbyterian church" be wrong? And why? Somehow it makes more sense to me (gray modifying stone, and Presbyterian modifying church), but I'm willing to be wrong....

It is said that laws, codes and rules are established because someone learned something the hard way. If we leave the Maryland General Assembly out of that discussion it remains generally true.

Similar rationality can be applied to the "rules" of grammar.

Like a template, the conventions and structures described in the OP are examples of what are known to work. And like the phrasing in the tenth amendment the detail is left to the devil to (and copy editors) to determine.

Article [X.] The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively,or to the people.

Good post. I've tried to make a similar point on my own blog before. My conclusion is that it's not so important whether you call them descriptive rules and prescriptive rules or patterns and rules or whatever, but that you make the distinction in the first place. Different people can mean very different things when talking about the rules of language.

Eric P.'s version of the phrase is the one I prefer.

@ Eric P. – I believe it depends on whether you are thinking of a stone church that is gray or a church that is made of gray stone.

@Eric P. : In my graduate linguistics courses, which to be fair were many years and a few theories ago, we never quite learned the exact sequence John mentions above as a hard and fast rule, but we did discover empirically that the tighter the semantic relationship is between the adjective and the noun it modifies, the closer the adjective is to the noun. Based on that observation, I don't think your phrase is wrong, but John's phrase sounds correct also.

@everyone: As for rules, linguists are still determining the inherent rules of a universal grammar that applies to any human language. I've been out of the loop for quite a while, but Chomsky himself has evolved well past the transformational-generative grammar of his seminal work Syntactic Structures. When I was studying it, the popular theory was government/binding. Chomsky was developing the barrier theory when I dropped out. These rules generally are much less prescriptive than the ones we're taught as children. The idea is to do case studies of bits of the grammar of more than one language, and then derive generalities from those observations. So the reason we're unaware of the "rules" is precisely because they're so internalized. Some linguists even think they're hard-wired.

Sorry for the long post. Anyone with more recent knowledge of theory in the field, feel free to correct or update me.

Not all the sources one can consult about the grammar give identical versions of the sequence of adjectives in English. So there is some variation in the possibilities. But it's equally clear that combinations outside the sets of sequences that the grammarians and linguists have described sound bizarre to the native speaker.

I'm having fun creating phrases that use all of the adjective types in the order provided. To wit (with a tip of the hat to Scott Adams for the nationality he invented for the Dilbert comics): "a disreputable large old square black Elbonian orthodox metal community oven."

When I learned high school French, we were taught the order of adjectives was to be remembered as BANGS -- beauty, age, number, goodness, size. Heaven help me if I had to remember all those other restrictors above. :-)

There's give in English, but basically it's:

subjective qualities
inherent qualities

Inside inherent qualities we find


However, note that there can be sub-grouping (gray stone house = (gray stone) house), and also that there is overlap between the "age" and "condition" categories, so "battered old shoes" is as likely as "old rusty truck".

Source: Oxford Dictionary of English Grammar

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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