word order (was Re: Random DWJ discovery of the day)

Charles Butler hannibal at thegates.fsbusiness.co.uk
Sun Apr 3 19:33:02 EDT 2005

Back from one brief break and about to go on another (life is hard) I've 
been quickly reading the languagy emails of the last few days with a 
suitable degree of awe at the linguistic expertise of this list. The 
discussion of the order of adjectives in particular had me turning to my 
trusty old Quirk and Greenbaum *University Grammar of English*, which 
suggests the following order of adjectival categories: general, age, colour, 
participle, provenance, noun, denominal, head. As in (to select from their 
examples) 'Intricate old grey interlocking Gothic church moral 
responsibilities,' which I'm sure we'll agree is very good English indeed.

Anyway, I have a couple of queries arising from all this.

Apples fall on bewigged heads quite happily without being aware of the 
inverse-square law. They conform to it, rather than obey it by volition - 
quite different from a driver slowing down to keep within a speed limit, 
say, which involves an act of will, or at any rate a state of consciousness. 
Does this distinction constitute any kind of useful analogy to the 
difference between rules of language that native speakers have to learn in 
school, and those they follow as unthinkingly as plummeting apples?

Then again: have I infringed a rule of English if I write 'The old little 
man entered the brown big house?' It feels 'unnatural', but if it's wrong it 
seems to be wrong in a different way from a sentence like 'Mat on the cat 
sat the.' Is it that in English, at least, rules involving a semantic 
element are more gainsayable than ones based on syntax alone?


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