Great Green Gobs of . . .

You know the rest, I hope. If not, you missed out during your childhood. While some people cringe at the sentence for reasons of extreme grossness, everyone would cringe if I’d said, “Green great gobs of . . .” But why? How do native English speakers know what order adjectives go in? My answer: brain magic!

Somehow we have internalized the accepted order of what are known as “adjective regions.”

Adjective chart via the The Guide to Grammar and Writing by the Capital Community College Foundation
Adjective chart via the The Guide to Grammar and Writing by the Capital Community College Foundation

Interestingly, there is a fixed order for adjectives in most languages (though this order differs by language). Otto Jesperson, a grammarian from Denmark, speculated why this is in 1922. He proposed that the more specific term, the closer it is to the noun. Similarly, in 1985, linguist M. A. K. Halliday wrote that adjectives become “increasingly permanent as attributes” the closer they are to the noun.

Adjectives from the same region can be rearranged however you like. For instance, you could easily have grimy, greasy gopher guts or greasy, grimy gopher guts.

There are also internal rules about which adjectives come before the noun and which don’t. Words like eastern or countless come before the noun. Consider “We told him countless times not to eat them” versus “We told him times that were countless not to eat them.” Similarly, words like asleepunable, or ill come after the noun. We say, “The boy was asleep” instead of “We had an asleep boy.”

English is weird!

As ever, knowing the rules and the exceptions means you can play with them, so don’t be afraid to push the boundaries to refocus your emphasis. Perhaps in reality you have big, delicious gopher guts after all!

Check out your skill level with various regions of adjectives here!

For detailed information about adjectives and a great many more things, read The Elements of Eloquence: Secrets of the Perfect Turn of Phrase by Mark Forsyth.

Sources: SlateThe Daily BuzzLiteral-MindedGuide to Grammar and Writing

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