Is it a big green house, or a green big house?

Quite often people will ask me if there is a particular reason why adjectives go in a particular order. Unfortunately, the answer isn’t super deep and complex, but there are some interesting things we can learn about native intuition because of it.

According to the Cambridge dictionary website there are a total of ten categories of adjectives in English and they go in the following order:

  1. Opinion – unusual
  2. Size – big
  3. Physical quality – thin
  4. Shape – round
  5. Age – old
  6. Colour – blue
  7. Origin – Dutch
  8. Material – metal
  9. Type – U-shaped
  10. Purpose – cooking

So based on this order, you can have an unusual big thin round old blue Dutch metal general-purpose cooking utensil, but you wouldn’t dare call it a metal unusual cooking round blue Dutch old metal general-purpose thin utensil.

Unusual big thin round old blue Dutch metal general-purpose cooking utensil – By: Amy Block

But this order is not mandated by any sort of laws. Just because this is coming from the Cambridge dictionary does not mean that we are obliged to follow it. We do it because breaking this order just feels wrong most of the time. After all, you probably didn’t need me to tell you that it is much more natural to say thin metal rod than it is to say metal thin rod.

Like I mentioned though, we only follow these rules most of the time. I’m sure you have all heard of the big bad wolf, right? Well, this is a perfect example of being able to break the order of these adjectives and have it be totally fine. Big is a size adjective, while bad is an opinion adjective. Based on the order provided above it should be bad big wolf, but that just doesn’t seem to fit the story at all!

We can also get around this restriction by creating a compound word with an adjective and a noun. Having something like a blue prison referred to as the blue big-house is fine as well.

These are just two examples of ways that English can, once again, break the rules of it’s own language. So like I sad, this is not the most interesting or satisfying answer in the world. This is just something we all universally agree upon because it feels better this way.

While we are on the topic of adjectives and weirdness though, I’d like to talk about a classic sentence in linguistic research that comes up again and again:

Colourless green ideas sleep furiously.

Colourless Green Ideas – By: Mikael Parkvall

This sentence is weird, right? But not because it is breaking any of the adjective rules that I mentioned above. How can something be green and colourless? How can an idea be green? Can ideas sleep? And if they can sleep, how do they sleep furiously?

This sentence follows all of the word ordering constraints of English, but is still incredibly uncomfortable to parse because it just doesn’t make any sense.

This sentence first appeared in a book by Noam Chomsky in 1957 and was used as evidence that no division of linguistics can stand on its own. Division of linguistics refers to all of the areas of language that make up sentences when we are creating them. The divisions of linguistics that we care about in this instance are syntax, which determines the order that words go in, and semantics, which cares about the meaning of the individual words and how they combine to form a meaning for a sentence.

In other words, just because the word order of the sentence is correct, that does not make it a good sentence. For this same reason, we would be able to make sense of something like metal unusual cooking round blue Dutch old metal U-shaped thin utensil at the end of the day, but it would still not make a good sentence.

This emphasizes the fact that all the areas of linguistics need to be involved in the generation of a sentence in order to be sure that we are creating grammatically sound sentences.

Thank you for reading folks! I hope this was informative and interesting to you. Be sure to come back next week for more interesting linguistic insights. If you have any topics that you want to know more about, please reach out and I will do my best to write about them. In the meantime, remember to speak up and give linguists more data.


2 thoughts on “Is it a big green house, or a green big house?

  1. Loved the ‘Colourless green ideas sleep furiously’ – this could be the start of a poem! I really enjoy your linguistics posts and I like the variety of your themes. Always interesting and entertaining. I’m already curious what you’ll come up with next!


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