Oh, yes there are!

One of the things we English-speakers begin to notice, whether we’re learning French or German, is that other languages put their words in a different order. This can be very confusing and tricky to grasp at first.

Think of those adjectives in French. Some go before the noun and others go after. How do we know which is which? Well, there’s a rule!

What about those lovely long German sentences? We can cope with the ‘verb second’ thing, but what about ‘T’ime, ‘M’anner, ‘P’lace? Does it really matter what goes where? Well, yes, if you want to speak natural, authentic German, it does!

But in English we can say things in any order we like, can’t we? Can we? Are you sure?

Look at the picture at the top of this post. What do you see? I guarantee that nobody said “a hairy big spider” or “green little men”. Why not? Well, that just wouldn’t sound right, would it? But how do you know? Well, that’s just not how we say it, is it?

Yes, that’s right. But why don’t we say it that way round? It’s because when we learnt to speak, we naturally learnt the rules, even if we weren’t even aware there were any rules. We learnt our own language in context. In a German or French lesson we’re learning a foreign language, also in context. It’s just that occasionally we need to be made aware of the rules. It might just help us learn!

So why do we call them “little green men” and not “green little men”? Simple. We’re following the rule of English adjectival order. Here’s the rule:

  • Number
  • Opinion
  • Size
  • Age
  • Shape
  • Colour
  • Origin
  • Purpose

Imagine having to learn that! But you just learnt it as you went along – in context – from three blind mice onwards! Clever you! Now you can try it out, to make sure it works.

This blog post was inspired by Mark Forsyth aka The Inky Fool. To hear Mark explain the rule himself, you can catch him on a recent episode of ‘The Museum of Curiosity’ on Radio 4 Extra. Mark’s intro begins at about 05:50, but why not enjoy the whole show. It’s brilliant!

 

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