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

Judith Ridge Judith.Ridge at det.nsw.edu.au
Mon Apr 4 02:59:35 EDT 2005


On 4/4/05 9:33 AM, "Charles Butler" <hannibal at thegates.fsbusiness.co.uk>
wrote:


> 
> 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?
> 
> Charlie 
> 

I'm a plummeting apple, and regularly bewail my lack of formal grammatical
education, so I will attempt to find a language for my thoughts on this!

My first response to Charlie's example is, well, it feels "unnatural" or
wrong, because we're simply not used to this order of words: "little old"
(or "tired old" or "big bad" etc) is such a common expression that any
syntactical change to it does sound unnatural. So then I wondered, why is
this the natural order of these particular words? Is there a non-arbitrary
reason for the order of adjectival categories Charlie cites (which I should
add, brought great joy to this particular village where I work! My rustic
editorial colleagues were most intrigued). In other words, does this order
represent some way our brain works or something‹some natural order outside
of language‹and so the rule came out of some natural requirement, rather
than creating it, if that makes sense. Also, does this order hold true in
other languages?

I'm not explaining this very well at all. My apple is badly bruised from all
that unthinking plumetting!

Judith



Judith Ridge
Editorial Staff
The School Magazine
PO Box 1928
Macquarie Centre
NSW 2113
AUSTRALIA
+61 2 9889 0044 (ph)
+61 2 9889 0040 (fax)

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