Adjectives, please form an orderly queue

Do you ever wonder why we describe things in the way we do?

My big fat Greek wedding, for example? Or the little old Spanish lady?

If you’re a native English speaker, you probably think you do this automatically (I know I do).

But do you remember being taught to say it that way? Me neither.

Try mixing it up. The old Spanish little lady. The little Spanish old lady.

It doesn’t make sense, does it? It’s just not right.

Turns out there’s a rule that makes sure you get your adjectives the right way round.

It’s called Order Force.

According to Mark Forsyth, the author of The Elements of Eloquence: How to Turn the Perfect English Phrase:

“Adjectives in English absolutely have to be in this order:


“So you can have a lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife. But if you mess with that word order in the slightest you’ll sound like a maniac.”

It got me wondering. How the hell do we (and I mean native English speakers here) just know this?

Apparently non-English speakers are actually taught this rule, which is perhaps why fluent speakers of English as a second language are often more articulate and eloquent than native speakers.

As you’d expect with the insanity of the English language, there are exceptions that prove the rule – which in itself is a completely illogical phrase – a bit like i before e except after c (which is wrong more often than not).

Big bad wolf, for example, doesn’t follow the order force rule.

But bad big wolf (which does)? Not right. Not right AT ALL.

This amendment to the rule is called ablaut reduplication and I have no idea what ablaut means without Googling (feel free though).

Ablaut reduplication means that the first vowel is almost always a high vowel (typically ɪ as in hit) and the reduplicated vowel is a low vowel (typically æ as in cat or ɒ as in top).

This is also something that seems to be absorbed by native English speakers like ink on blotting paper, without us even realising.

I’ll let you know if I find any more completely crazy rules of English.