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

Colin Fine colin at kindness.demon.co.uk
Mon Apr 4 18:51:05 EDT 2005

Charles Butler wrote:

> 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?
Yes, it is a useful analogy, though it shouldn't be pushed too far; and 
I'm not sure volition is the key.
Apples fall because of the way the universe is, not because anybody 
decided so. Speed limits exist because people decided they should: they 
exist (and more to the point, the sanctions associated with them exist) 
in human society.

'Big brown house' is preferred to 'brown big house' because that's the 
way English is (all varieties of English, as far as I know). Crucially, 
this is NOT because somebody decided so, or put it in a grammar, or 
consciously taught it: all native English speakers obey it (though most 
don't consciously know it).

However a case can be made that expressions such as "It is I" and "He 
and I went there" are not part of English, but part of an artificial 
language invented by people (and conversely that 'to boldly go' is part 
of English). [While I know I'm being controversial, or even provocative, 
here, I'm not way out on a limb: see EMONDS*,* JE (1986) Grammatically 
deviant prestige constructions, in M. Brame, H. Contreras & F. Newmeyer 
(eds) A Festschrift for Sol Saporta, 93-129]

> 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?
You're right, there is a difference in their ungrammaticality. I think 
the crucial thing is that the adjectives all belong at the same place in 
the structure, so there is a different level of rule that governs their 
ordering - which is not to disagree with your analysis.


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