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What is the rule for adjective order? (stackexchange.com)
219 points by ColinWright on Apr 16, 2013 | hide | past | web | favorite | 131 comments

How about this rule? Order the modifiers to maximize the product of their successive restrictive effects. For example, we would prefer "great green dragon" to "green great dragon" because

    ([_] - [great _]) * ([great _] - [great green _])
is greater than

    ([_] - [green _]) * ([green _] - [green great _]),
where the notation [x _] denotes the expected number of substitutions admitted by the hole (_) in the context x.

Note that this ordering rule seems to do the right thing for the obvious corner cases. For example, we would prefer "modern brick house" to "brick modern house" because, in the second ordering, [brick modern _] is about the same as [brick _], making the second term in

    ([_] - [brick _]) * ([brick _] - [brick modern _])
tend toward zero, making the preference score for "brick modern house" also tend toward zero.

EDITED TO ADD: Just to be clear, I'm not claiming that this is the rule we actually use when we're putting words together. I'm claiming that this is the "true" rule, to the extent that anything can be said to be true in human communications. What we do in our heads works out to be an approximation: We (1) choose the modifiers that we think we need and (2) order them so that none seems wasted. For example, when describing a modern brick house, we know that "modern" and "brick" have to go somewhere, but putting "modern" after "brick" makes it impotent, so we put it before. By avoiding these "zeroes," which ring hollow to our inner ear, we make every word earn its place and indirectly seek the product-maximizing ordering.

> Order the modifiers to maximize the product of their successive restrictive effects.

Compare: "The great grey-green greasy Limpopo river, all set about with fever trees."

So we'd have to decide on the fly which is more restrictive of great rivers, grey-green or greasy. Perhaps sometimes it's just about how the sounds sound.

Order the modifiers to maximize the product of their successive restrictive effects.

Can you explain this? A lot of the discussion here seems to be based on the fact that the problem is with interpreting the importance of an adjective in relation to others written out in succession (attached to a noun). Then comes the way it flows in speech.

The general 'rule' (for a lack of a better term), as far as I can tell, is interpreting the importance/value of each adjective, and, thus, recommends a placement order. This importance is based on customary usage.

If you mean to say that we should place superlatives ahead of all adjectives, what if the modifiers include more than one superlative? E.g., the greatest, darkest horse. To give another example: the most beautiful, darkest horse. More than one permutation seem to work. Doesn't this undermine any inherent value one order may have over another?

Also, what does 'impotent' mean? Effective? Isn't this begging the question? If it does mean 'effective', then aren't you essentially saying the order recommended is the most effective because it is the most effective? So, that begs the question: why is it more effective than any other order? And what is effective in terms of adjective order? Fluidity (in terms of pronunciation)? Or physicality/nature of the attributes (black vs. white, etc.)? Or something different altogether?

The way I see it, there is very little rhyme and reason in the order of adjectives. There is no intrinsic value in brick modern house or modern brick house. The rules were created based on arbitrary custom/tradition. But now we are getting into semantics, which really complicates everything.

My apologies if I'm way off here.

Sure, let me try to explain. My model is built as follows:

1. People speak and write not by following rules but their ears.

2. Since the ear hears words in sequence, the interpretation of those words also occurs in sequence.

3. Thus the phrase “great green dragon” is interpreted first as “great _”, then as “great green _”, and then finally as “great green dragon”, with the hole “_” representing the expectation of something concrete to come, something that the mind’s eye can eventually see.

4. This expectation is satisfied only when each new word reduces the possibilities for what will fill the hole. With each new word, the hole must shrink toward a single point, and rapidly.

5. Therefore, the most-pleasing ordering of N modifiers will tend to be the one that most rapidly and evenly converges to a point.

6. Therefore, we can find the most-pleasing ordering by maximizing the geometric mean of the shrinkages for all steps in the sequence.

6. For fixed N, the geometric mean and the product are interchangeable for optimization purposes, so we can just maximize the product of the shinkages.

And that’s pretty much it.

Now to your questions:

By “impotent” I mean without effect. Any word that you put after a word that has already reduced the hole to a near-point is going to seem worthless and spoil the whole sequence.

Re. begging the question, a sequence isn’t effective because it’s effective; it’s effective because, given our mental probability models for word sequences, it rapidly and evenly converges upon a concrete interpretation.

To take your “darkest/greatest” as an example, here’s the rapid-and-even-convergence scores for the two possible orderings:

    $ { echo darkest greatest;
        echo greatest darkest; } | ./modorder.py
            170047264509 darkest greatest
           3409987166088 greatest darkest
So, without any knowledge that “horse” will follow, we can predict that “greatest darkest” will be the best ordering of the modifiers.

(This is from a crude approximation of the model that I just whipped up. It uses a small database of 2-gram and 3-gram frequencies.)

In information theory terms, if you ignore the current expectations of ordering and try to construct an ordering rule based on the information content of each ordering, all orderings have equal information content. Spreading out the information content so that it arrives a little bit with each word instead of in bursts and trickles doesn't get you anything, except that maybe the human brain can process it more easily in smaller chunks. Is this a theory?

This actually jives with the fact that languages with less information per phoneme (Japanese, Spanish) are spoken at a faster rate in phonemes per second than languages with more information per phoneme (Mandarin), so that most languages contain a similar information rate.

"Across-Language Perspective on Speech Information Rate" http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/language/summary/v087/87.3.pell...

No offense, but this sounds pretty tautological to me.

Can you show me the tautology?

I don't know how to come up with a reasonable model for how people are likely to interpret words without accounting for the fact that people interpret words in large part by how they have been interpreted in the past. But I don't see how accounting for prior knowledge of word frequencies makes the model tautological.

In points 2-3. Obviously we're used to hearing things in a certain order, and tend to copy that, but the question is why we put things in a certain order to start with. How is a 'great X Y' any more concrete than a 'green X Y'? Obviously concrete things have size, but then abstractions aren't exactly known for their coloring either :-)

But "the question", as you offer it, is based on the fallacy that there is some underlying natural law to the way we use words. There isn't. There is no blank slate "to start with," no axioms from which everything else follows. Words have always been used in the context of how they have been used.

Therefore, any reasonable model of how people use words will have some representation of how people have used words. My model uses simple word frequencies, yes, but it doesn't predict that one modifier sequence will be preferred to another because "that's the way it is." Rather, it predicts a sequence will be more preferred because it more rapidly and more evenly converges on a meaning.

How is that prediction tautological?

The original question was 'what is the rule for ordering adjectives [in English.]' The first thing you said was: How about this rule? Order the modifiers to maximize the product of their successive restrictive effects.

I'm saying that your observation people copy what they know is tautological, and tells us nothing whatever about the restrictive effects of a given adjective.

How is Order the modifiers to maximize the product of their successive restrictive effects equivalent to "people copy what they know"? The restrictive effects of a given adjective are an input to the model because that issue was never the question. The ordering was the question, and that's what my proposed model attempts to predict, given prior knowledge of restrictive effects. The interesting prediction it makes is that people prefer orderings that converge rapidly and evenly.

How about in the case of:

1. "A Chinese vegetarian lawyer"

2. "A Vegetarian Chinese lawyer"

According to the referenced paper[1], #1 is considered awkward, but #1 follows your ordering logic, assuming that there are more Chinese than Vegetarians.

[1] http://www.lingref.com/cpp/wccfl/25/paper1473.pdf

#1 Would suggest to me a lawyer who is Chinese and specialises in vegetarians someone while #2 would suggest a layer who is Chinese (or who deals in Chinese laws) and is a vegetarian.

Maybe just me?

There needs to be a comma in between 'Vegetarian' and 'Chinese' in both phrases to clarify that whichever is the former modifies 'lawyer' as opposed to the latter.

A hyphen also helps...

A Chinese vegetarian lawyer= a lawyer, who is both ethnic Chinese and vegetarian, where the set of vegetarian lawyers is more generally recognized than the set of Chinese lawyers

A Chinese vegetarian-lawyer= ethnic Chinese who practises law of vegetarian issues ("vegetarian" is a compound word, i.e. spoken quicker, at higher pitch, and with less gap before the following word)

A Chinese, vegetarian, lawyer= an ethnic Chinese who just happens to also be a vegetarian, ("vegetarian" is a non-restrictive phrase, i.e. spoken at lower pitch, with a longer gap both before and after)

No, because the two adjectives aren't from the same category, are they? That would be the only reason why you would use a comma.

Yes, that is also how I interpreted the two phrases.

Even better, #2 is unclear if the person practices Chinese law or is Ethnically Chinese.

Those examples are hard for me to reason about. In my limited experience with lawyers, my prior for vegetarian is probably higher than for Chinese, but my sample size is too low to be statistically significant.

I also find either ordering awkward for categorizing a professional by their county of origin and their dietary restrictions :)

Am I supposed to know how to parse those? I'm not sure how, but I really want to. Is that a standard representation I'm just not familiar with (or even one I am familiar with but having trouble recognizing)?

I'm just making this stuff up based on what seems sensible. For all I know, my hypothesis has been made countless times before and refuted by practicing linguists. But, from what I can see so far in this conversation, the hypothesis seems plausible.

So what is all the extra markup supposed to indicate?

  ([_] - [great _]) * ([great _] - [great green _])
What is the first [_] ? Why do you alternate between *s and -s? What is the point of "[x _] denotes the expected number of substitutions admitted by the hole (_) in the context x." if everything seems to have the same number of substitutions?

When I first saw the markup without examining it closely I was excited that I might learn a new markup/sentence diagramming format. Upon closer inspection it seems its just a bunch of characters that when interrogated closely add very little value.

I think smackfu was correct: substituting different adjectives of the same type should not change the order of the adjectives. How are people supposed to discuss things they are not familiar with? What should I do if I do not know what portion of houses are brick? What proportion are colonial versus modern? Or what proportion of craftsman style houses are brick?

It is beyond me why this is the lead thread under a pretty interesting and out of the ordinary link on HN.

I defined [x _] to denote the size of the hole _ in the context x. By "size" I mean some measure of the width of the distribution of things that can sensibly fill the hole. One reasonable measure would be entropy. So, for example, we could say that [_] means the entropy of the distribution of things that could sensibly fill a hole in the empty context, which is to say start a new phrase. Similarly, [great _] denotes the entropy of the phrases that could sensibly follow "great". Does the notation make sense now?

Update: The * and - symbols are just the usual arithmetic operators applied to the sizes.

Look into LKB, if you haven't already. I used it extensively in my master's (computational linguistics) and though I've forgotten most of what I knew, you might find it an interesting rabbit hole in terms of sentence representation formats. Especially if you dig Lisp.

Wouldn't that imply that substituting in a different adjective of the same type (color / size) could change the order?

But in practice, that doesn't seem to be the case.

Personally, I've always mentally preferred an ordering with the noun first followed by increasing levels of restrictiveness. In my head, that's how I think. I then have to translate that into proper English grammar.

It makes sense to me because I'm providing as much detail as necessary, but giving as much detail up front as possible. For example, when saying "the [adjective_detailed], [adjective_general] [noun]", what if the last word were lost? Then you'd have no idea what the phrase was about. And for the listener, you start with the most useless of detail and have to remember it, applying it to more useful of information as it comes in, and you have no idea what's being spoken about until you've heard the end. So then you have to backup and apply the adjectives once you've actually heard the noun. It makes (IMO) bad structure for parsing. Conversely, with the most general detail first, you drill down to the necessary level of detail as you speak, and continuously describe something the listener already heard.

The order you describe reminds me of inventory or shipping labels, particularly military-ese: "QTY 5, pistol, M1911, A2". However, in my experience, Western spoken languages are not at all optimized for dropping the last bits (so often that's where the predicate / object lives).

You made me think of two similar (pet peeves) of mine:

Address and US Dates

In the latter, obviously Mar 15, 2013 is expressed as 3/15/2013. I prefer to encode as 2013 03 15 (insert whatever syntax you like). There are enough techie people here I doubt I need to say much more on that.

But the former, addresses, really bother me. Why do we start with the smallest modifier first? It probably relates to the way postal routes were first created, maybe for ease of use for the delivery person, would would already be in a restricted area.

Seems that addresses should be ordered: Country, City, ZIP/subregion, Street, Number, Person

If you assume that most post travels between points that are close to one another, putting the most specific modifier first makes sense. Most of the time you only have to think about a small part of the address to route correctly.

That breaks down if the assumption is incorrect, and also to some extent if you have many different places with the same name that all receive lots of mail from you.

So you're essentially right: It's an artifact of how the postal system used to work. Though both assumptions still apply more often than you might think.

Good point - likewise email addresses and domain names.

In Chinese, everything is "big to small". It is very logical. dates are 2013-03-15, addresses are USA, New York, Manhattan, names are Last Name, First Name, etc.

I really like this. I can't imagine that the cognitive process humans use to order adjectives in everyday speech involves categorizing each adjective and memorizing an arbitrary ordering on those categories.

On the other hand, the category-ordering approach does have the advantage that it's an O(log n) operation, whereas solving the restrictive effect maximization problem is harder: a heuristic greedy search in the solution space might be O(n), and a true solution might be O(n!).

Some humans categorize every noun by gender and every verb by conjugation behavior... and even memorize multiple definitions and connotations for thousands of words.

For example, we would prefer "modern brick house" to "brick modern house" because, in the second ordering, [brick modern _] is about the same as [brick _], making the second term in

This bit makes no sense to me. Are you assuming that most brick houses are modern? Or that most modern houses are made of brick? How do you describe a brick house in the colonial style? Craftsman? Greek Revival? I dont even want to think about Brick Gothic...

I'm saying that "brick _" is more restrictive on the phrases that can plausibly follow it than is "modern _". By choosing to place brick first, you narrow the possibilities so much that the following word has little work to do and seems out of place.


My premature reaction was "Nonsense. You can't just make up rules no one knows and call them grammar" but then I noticed how unnatural changing the order feels. Amazing how we have these grammar rules in our head without knowing they exist.

Every rule of grammar you know have been made up by someone after watching how people speak.

"Every rule of grammar you know is a fuzzy reference to a referent embedded in someone's brain." sounds better, though ;)

Or been invented out of whole cloth by someone who needed another reason to look down their nose at others.

Tell that to the person commenting about Lojban in this thread...

Well of course conlangs are an exception >,>

Probably just because that's how you've heard it done. The rules are likely made-up, they just sound funny to break.

Note that other languages have completely different grammars, and they make sense to them.

That always reminds me of Tolkien's complaint that he was told one could not say "a green great dragon", but had to say "a great green dragon".

That's when a fantasy novelist just goes ahead and creates a species called "greatdragon" so he can say "a green greatdragon" with impunity.

And indeed, "a green greatdragon" sounds quite fine :-)

The most voted answer on StackOverflow mentions Tolkien.

Look into Lojban for what it's like to specify these kinds of rules prescriptively. Adjective ordering was something I had never given a moment's thought to before reading about Lojban, but in order to specify it formally takes pages.

I wonder how long the list of exceptions to the rules we've managed to come up with are.

That's what linguistics is. Grammar is as natural as walking. Almost everyone does it, and no conscious understanding of the rules is required.

"no conscious understanding of the rules is required"

I hate to nitpick, but this is not entirely true.

First, there is no innate, specific grammar or syntax in the human brain. Any given language -- even one's first language -- is learned. It's learned in stages, and true, one tends to pick up the rules by immersion before studying them consciously. But conscious study of the rules is extremely beneficial to improving one's understanding of, and facility with, a given language.

To say that "no conscious understanding of the rules is required" is a little like saying "Kobe Bryant is a naturally born basketball genius." True, Kobe Bryant may have certain athletic gifts and mental wiring that enable him to exceed 99.999999% of the world at basketball skill. But he learned the rules of the game, just like everyone else. And he practices daily. In fact, he probably practices harder than many of his less talented peers. Even someone of his natural endowments couldn't have risen to his level without conscious and repeated effort.

It's true that grammar and syntax start to seem natural and subconscious over time, especially as one improves in linguistic fluency. That's a good sign, in fact. But I've never met a writer who couldn't benefit from conscious study of the rules and fundamentals, even if only occasionally.

> First, there is no innate, specific grammar or syntax in the human brain.

While I don't agree with theory, Chomskyian grammar actually does assert this. It has a certain intuitive strength behind it, too.

> To say that "no conscious understanding of the rules is required" is a little like saying "Kobe Bryant is a naturally born basketball genius."

Except that's different. "No conscious understanding" doesn't mean "no learning". Most English speakers easily use irregular pluralization without significant hiccups, but it's really just following I-mutation: http://www.etymonline.com/imutate.php I'll bet 99% of English speakers hadn't even heard the term or the concept.

I think we're talking about, and possibly conflating, two different things here: speech and writing. I was explicitly talking about written language, in as much as that was the domain of the linked article (and the grandparent comment, or at least I thought as much).

Frankly, I'm largely responsible for this conflation. I didn't draw clear enough distinctions, and in fact, I probably lost sight of the distinctions myself in responding. That's 100% on me.

Nevertheless, the fact remains, a statement like "no conscious understanding of the rules is required" is overly broad and sweeping. It lends itself to about a thousand interpretations, mine being merely one of them. There are too many contexts for the expression of language, and methods of communication by which to express it (written, verbal, etc.), to make a categorical statement like that.

> I think we're talking about, and possibly conflating, two different things here: speech and writing.

Could you speak to the relevance of the distinction?

> It lends itself to about a thousand interpretations, mine being merely one of them.

Could you offer some of them? I simply saw "an understanding of the rules, that is conscious, is not required". That seems like a simple enough, unambiguous statement.

I would also add that most modern linguists tend to view only instantaneous language production (i.e. casual speech and sign language) as representative of natural grammar. Once you incorporate conscious processes into it (as in writing), you interfere with the way people produce their language. With this in mind, most of what is taught in school or learned through practice does little to affect our speech patterns; nearly all of them are acquired from our family and social group at an early age. Not my exact field, but I believe there is a bevy of research to say that adults change syntactic structures of their speech only once in a blue moon. So in this sense, there is almost 0 explicit learning in the process. Kobe Bryant had his shooting skills straight from the womb.

Once you learn to read, you don't have any consciousness of reading, but this does not mean there is a reading acquisition module. Or a driving one, etc.

Have you ever watched a child learn language? They're not conscious of grammar at all. It's basically impossible to correct them, the just ignore you and keep on saying the wrong thing. Eventually they figure out the right thing themselves.

Have you watched an adult learn a pidgin through immersion? It has a similar character, because there is no French academy, Latin teacher, or privileged register of English involved, and there is no methodology.

I wonder where we got the idea that the only way people learn languages after their first is through school.

I agree with everything after your unsupported first sentence.

I think we have differing interpretations of "required"

"I agree with everything after your unsupported first sentence."

What about my first sentence bugs you? The brain is certainly wired for language, but not for a specific language. English, for example, is not instinctive. A newborn baby will not spontaneously develop English; he will need to pick it up by being around others who are speaking it. Same goes for French, or Mandarin, or Russian, etc. I'm not going to spend all morning looking up and linking research papers on this topic, so I'll just need you to take a flyer on this. Either you're going to agree with me or disagree with me, and that's cool either way.

"I think we have differing interpretations of "required"

Perhaps, though it's probably not a semantic rabbit hole worth a deep dive. But sure, learning the rules of a language isn't technically "required" in order to attain basic fluency with the language. But conscious study of the rules is certainly required to break through plateaus in one's facility. I guess this ultimately boils down to what one's desired goals and outcome with a language are.

Either way, the statement "no conscious understanding of the rules is required" is overly reductive and sweeping.

The problem with your assertion is that it is inappropriate as a response to a concise description of what linguistics is. Linguistics is not the study of how to be a more effective writer or a great communicator. Linguistics is the study of the "basic" language communication skills that nearly everyone possesses. When you study linguistics, you discover that even what many people would consider to be poor speech or writing is still remarkably sophisticated and complex.

> The brain is certainly wired for language, but not for a specific language.

Can you explain how the brain is "wired for language?" Naively, I would imagine language is just one instance of the general pattern "things Hierarchical Temporal Memory models (e.g. the neocortex) get for free given a large-enough training corpus." Is that what you meant, or is there actually some part of our brains that is specifically "language" and couldn't be repurposed for something else?

It's not that the parts responsible for language couldn't be repurposed for something else (although I don't know whether it's true). It's the fact, that more general learning skills cannot substitute dedicated language learning capabilities. It's hard to come up with different hypothesis once you know that children not exposed to language at all for some time (up to 4-6 years, but I don't remember) lose the ability to acquire it forever.

> learning the rules of a language isn't technically "required" in order to attain basic fluency with the language

I think that's all Evbn was talking about. Most people aren't Kobe Bryant; most people don't have any desired outcome with their language skills.

Linguistics is a lot more than just syntax.

One point to bear in mind in discussing this issue is that not all natural human languages reach the same result in ordering adjectives. For example, speakers of Chinese (Cantonese, specifically) have to be taught English adjective order


and it is generally familiar to persons who have had a strong first-year linguistics course at a university or who have studied a modern foreign language in depth that adjective order varies from language to language. So the one thing we can be sure about here is that the grammatical sense of native speakers of English (or native speakers of Chinese, etc.) does NOT reflect some kind of underlying universal rule of human thought.

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language


is an expensive reference book well informed by worldwide investigation of English as it is actually written and spoken. It is a useful tool for informed discussion about the interesting issues brought up by the Stack Exchange question kindly submitted here.

In case anybody's interested, one of our (former) graduate students has done some really fascinating work on computational analysis of prenominal modifiers (adjectives, etc.). For example, her ACL paper from 2011:

Mitchell, M., Dunlop, A., and Roark, B. (2011). Semi-Supervised Modeling for Prenominal Modifier Ordering. Proceedings of ACL 2011. http://www.aclweb.org/anthology/P/P11/P11-2041.pdf

Interesting conclusion from the paper:

[...] for ordering prenominal modifiers, [...] a simple n-gram model outperforms position-specific models

This seems to imply that adjective order can be better described with common phrases rather than a set of definite grammar rules.

Thus the challenge of modern syntactic theory - to most it is clear there is some structure occurring, but attempts to quantify it are still beaten by rather naive statistical approaches.

"More-or-less", or "less-or-more"?

Fascinating. As a native English speaker, I was never taught this ordering, but swapping around the examples a bit emphasizes how "unnatural" any other ordering sounds.

This paper linked in the comments is intriguing:


That is interesting contrast to czech (and probably other slavic languages). In czech almost any ordering is grammatically correct and does not sound unnatural, but the meaning is changed (usually only sightly). But because of slightly changed meaning the whole sentence often sounds weird in itself. And what is interesting for this contrast is that these slight changes in meaning are not readily conveyable in english, probably because of this fixed ordering of words and phrases in sentence.

This is often true in English as well. See the above example of "Chinese vegetarian lawyer" vs. "vegetarian Chinese lawyer". Both sound fine, but the former means a lawyer who represents Chinese vegetarians or maybe a Chinese lawyer who represents vegetarians, and the latter means a lawyer who is both Chinese and a vegetarian.

But then look at "great Chinese lawer" and "Chinese great lawyer". The latter doesn't make any sense.

Folks keep saying a certain phrasing is "natural", but that is a funny word. It isn't innate/instinctive. Grammar comes from years of exposure to other speakers of language.

That's what the scare quotes around "unnatural" are for. But it's hotly debated whether grammar does indeed originate in "years of exposure to other speakers of language". Certainly some aspects of grammar are language-specific, but many appear to be universal, or close to it. From the paper I linked above:

For example, adjectives that denote quality have been argued to precede adjectives conveying size, which in turn precede adjectives conveying shape, and so on, in all languages (5). Similar claims have been made for other adjective types, and the respective ordering restrictions are given in (6).

This is one of the founding principles of today's dominant Chomskyan linguistics, perhaps best argued popularly in Stephen Pinker's The Language Instinct.

Not sure Chomskyan is dominant, but anyway, yes, an ability to be grammatical, is widely regarded as innate. Sort of like how every computer can compute the results of a Turing machine, regardless of the actual machine language or high level programming language glommed on top.

Or perhaps to say that humans parse a sentence like a concatenative/stack language, but not an algol/C-like language. (Not saying exactly that, but saying that's the sort of statement that could get to the heart of it). Whereas "C vs Java" varies across cultures".

That is, the low level hardware memory model is universal, but the shape of the structures on top are diverse.

I would also highlight a distinction between universal grammatical rules that are key to "making any sort of sense at all" vs customizable rules that "disambiguate among multiple possible interpretations". That was put poorly, but bear with me.

That is, SVO vs OVS is arbitrary, and could go either way, but members of each community need to agree. But number-color-object is nearly universal because color-number-object is uninterpretable as a concatenation of color with number object, unless a language specifically develops a concept of a color applying to more than one non-group entity. And here I speculate, but I can easily imagine a human language where an adjective before a number is understood to emphasize that all items are exactly the same color, or that the items are all connected with no other-color between them, like a "red 3 plates" understood to mean the plates are in a stack.

Heck, I bet that if I were really good looking or famous and started using that pattern, it would spread

Chomskyan theory is less dominant than it used to be. Before WWII, linguistics was largely the study of European languages, and as a result, there seemed to be a lot of similarity between languages. Chomsky was on the tail end of this.

In recent years, the amount of research of non-European languages has exploded and we've realized that languages are much more diverse than we thought. For example, it's not just a matter of SVO, OVS, VOS, or any permutation of the previous; some languages don't even use the subject-object pattern(they do something called ergativity).

TLDR: there may be some sort of innate grammar, but it is much, much more murky than we used to think.

Here's a quiz for you:

Put the jumbled adjectives in the correct order:

I've tried this quiz with a bunch of people who never studied grammar, and I've found if you are a native English speaker, you'll arrive at the same answer.

If you have doubts about the order of a certain pair of words, just try using those 2 words alone, for example, ask yourself if "ATTRACTIVE WOOD table" is better or worse than "WOOD ATTRACTIVE table", and the answer will be obvious.

I also found it fascinating that there are 720 possible ways to order the adjectives (because 6x5x4x3x2x1 = 720), but just one sounds correct.

This is fascinating indeed, can we break down some actual rules from that example?

"Writing table" is idiomatic, you need to understand that the table's purpose is for a writer, not that "writing" is a verb meaning the table is authoring something. As an idiom, it's very close to an atomic construct to reason about, so that places "writing" last and closest to the noun.

One of those adjectives (Canadian) modifies another (Wood) rather than the ultimate noun, so they go together.

(Maybe that adjective could be forming "Canadian writing"? That's silly, but why is it silly? You need contextual knowledge, to know that a table's characteristics are invariant for any kind of writing, to eliminate the parsing of "Canadian writing" as nonsensical. The syntax alone can't establish that. Context is required. If the noun were "anthologies" instead of "tables", then "Canadian" could modify "writing".)

Similarly, another adjective (Long) implicitly modifies both the ultimate noun and the wood that it's made of. It would be nonsensical to have a long table made of not-long wood. So "Long" goes outside (before) "Canadian Wood". Context is necessary again here, to know that wood is a material for making tables.

"Four" goes outside everything else, as it's multiplying the entire final construct.

"Attractive" remains, and I'd argue that there isn't a single answer for it, as two other child comments already illustrate. It could go either before or after "Long", and could even convey meaning by that placement, indicating whether the length contributes to the attractiveness ("Attractive Long") or is just an incidental quality ("Long Attractive"). "Attractive" could even come after "Canadian Wood" if the speaker wanted to indicate that the material is not part of the attractiveness. That construct feels slightly unnatural, but it should because so is the thought.

"I have four attractive writing tables, all made from Canadian wood and of considerable length."

But if I must be stupidly German:

"I have four attractive long Canadian-wood writing tables." Or maybe they're not made of Canadian wood, they're just bought in Canada: "I have four attractive Canadian long wooden writing tables".

Putting more than three qualifiers before a noun makes you an asshat. I can't remember more than three adjectives in a row, get to the damn noun already.

Spoiler: The answer is http://decode.org/?q=SbheNggenpgvirYbatPnanqvnaJbbqJevgvat

(Rot 13 encoded. See the blue text -- for some reason my eye doesn't immediately see the decoded text.)

Interesting! I actually get a slightly different answer:


No one you've tried it on has produced my version?

I reached your answer (but I'm not a native speaker).

Hm. I put LONG one word to the left of where you did. But I suppose that only makes sense with a comma after it. Yours feels more correct if no commas are allowed.

When coding, I frequently find myself wishing that English used noun-adjective-adjective ordering. It works so much better for organizing sub-categories into nice, sortable, searchable trees. I sometimes try to use naa naming in my code, but it's a constant struggle to not accidentally fall back to aan out of life-long habit.

French mostly does this, though there are a defined set of exceptions, i.e. adjectives for beauty, age, good/bad and size go before the noun. Of course, the exceptions also have exceptions: the placement of some adjectives that normally go before the noun depends on whether the meaning is literal or figurative.

Yes, a good example is with "grand":

* un grand homme = a great man

* un homme grand = a tall man

Something which can be funny is when you want to talk about a great man who is tall (e.g. Charles De Gaulle)

What's even weirder is that some words have different meanings as pre-adjectives than post-adjectives. For example, I believe ancien means "former" in prefix position but "ancient" in postfix.

Yes! I actually think this way (not verbally, my thoughts have only a loose verbal connection). NAA makes so much more sense because you can continuously update your mental picture, rather than waiting for the end and then backing up to incorporate the previously parsed adjectives.

Determiners (the, an, that...) Observation (pretty, nice, awesome...) Size and Shape (big, huge, great(usually)...) Age (new, young, fourteen years old, antique...) Color (blue, black, pale...) Origin (French, American, Asian...) Material (woolen, jade, metallic) Qualifier -- this one can seem tricky. It's an adjective that has become part of a set phrase with the noun. Like "book cover" or "rocking chair". Those have to stay right next to the noun or it messes up the phrase (a rocking blue chair has a wobbly leg; a blue rocking chair is doing what it should). A "great dragon" is very dangerous and amazing, not just big.

There are also a few English phrases with postmodifiers, like 'mother-in-law' or 'attorney general', but they are few, and you learn them one at a time.

It isn't really logical, and every language has, more or less, its own order, but English is more firm in its adherence to its set order than most. It just sounds right to us!

[ok, so not strictly on adjective order, but i felt like sharing]

HOMAGE TO THE SYNONYM (On reading of Dhana~njaya's Namamala in K.A. Nilakanta Sastri's A History of South India) Kovalam Beach, Kerala 12th June 2011

I felt it strange to read today some news of writers past, Their time was one of heterogeneity; sectarian views surpassed. [Though sectarianism has now taken hold; and o ffered much up to Shiva. Jains, Buddhists and  Ajivikas: all gone, save bits in literature.]

The passage that stirred interest, perhaps it's not of note, But an ancient `lexicon of synonyms' - what type of person wrote? Well in those times of philosophy, many literate were courtiers Those commissioned men could run amok; quite di fferent to what's taught here! [Though of freedoms known back in the past, we've not yet lost a single; For words remain like cocktails; a great joy to mix and mingle.]

To reflection's fruit: the synonym, it's sacred to the core, Turning misconceptions of inequitability, it's something of a door. It has been said, with few against, that language has a mid: "The verb to be" (or is/was/will be, in our poor contorted chit).

Yet my subject's not, as etymology'd posit, mere beast of straight assignment, But another way to subtlety, word choice and thought alignment.

Its operands, once affixed, are viewed in context and kind, Just as yoga might work limbs and flesh: en-route to still the mind.

Younger, I gave a speech on her: those notions of 'to be', Through an ancient Chinese philosophical school - Logicians, mon cheri!

Their language one of ambiguity and subtleties aplenty, Compare our Indo-Aryan pauper writ, with so few words for "empty"!

And of languages designed now for an audience of machines, They cannot seek to replicate our great linguistic genes. Of Daoists we did not take heed: fighting nature, reaping pain

Now as never we need a champion, to help disembark this train. "Without further ado!" I shall then move for a humble nomination Of the synonym as an ailment for our present day conflagration.

> A big, modern brick house (NOT a modern, big brick house)

Not unless it's a modern house with big bricks, anyway.

I think you would hyphenate big-brick in that case, as, taken together, they are a single adjective of house.

And "a modern, brick big house" is slang for prison.

I remember something in David Friedman's writing to the effect of how no layman ever argued with him about anything in physics (where he has his degree) but everyone feels qualified to argue with him on economics (what he is professor of). I think linguistics is similar. I only took a couple courses, but I frequently see people offering up opinions as if their instincts were a valid counter argument to well established science (like whether people have a conscious grasp of the grammar of their native language).

A subject near and dear to my heart. In college I was briefly obsessed with cross-linguistic adverb ordering.

I wish middle school science included some linguistics. The empirical data are already in our heads, so it's a great vehicle for teaching the scientific method -- look at data, make a hypothesis, check its predictions against other data (no equipment needed!) and refine it until it encompasses the counter-examples.

My view: The more "important" the adjective is to the description, the nearer the noun it goes. I'm not sure where I learned this, but if, for instance, I'm trying to describe a building to somebody, and in my opinion the thing that will help him distinguish it is it's size, but it also happens to be red, I would say

"the red big building."

On the other hand, if the most important distinction is its color, I would say

"the big red building."

I'm a citrus farmer. I have several acres of trees growing oranges. Now, you may know that we usually pick the oranges before they've fully ripened. Consequently, we have to store them in a building for a little while until they're ready for consumption. We have several of those buildings, so I've named them for family members, such as my daughter Vi, who married the boy next door, Davie Brown. And this weekend, I'm paying a crew to come out and repaint the building that's named after her. So come next Monday, it will be the white Violet Brown green orange building.

Thanks, I'll be here all week.

What variety of orange? I love blood-red oranges.

Just as a data point, to me, it doesn't matter which of those adjectives you think is more important, I think "the big red building" sounds much more natural than "the red big building." The latter sounds flat-out wrong to me.

What about:

A: What building do I need to go to? B: The big one. A: Which big one? I see a red one and a green one. B: The red big building.

I wouldn't say that. I've just tried saying out loud to a friend, and they also said it was weird. I would definitely say "The big red building," or even leave out "big" entirely - it's already been specified.

It's worth knowing that I'm a pure mathematician, and I frequently come out with utterances that others find odd, purely on logical grounds. It's plausible that there are circumstances in which I would violate these rules/guidelines/suggestions/baseless musings/whatever.

That's not one of them.

Why do we privilege individual judgements that something seems "weird," particularly when it would be perfectly understood?

It's as if linguistics is often modeling syntactic rules which reflect something other than natural communication as it actually occurs.

Even if you stress 'big'?

Just for the fun of it: In french, we often put the adjective (like red, in this case) after the noun. The building red (La bâtiment rouge)

And in your particular case, where we want to also tell it is big, we do: The big building red (Le grand bâtiment rouge)

But we can't do the following: The red building big (Le rouge bâtiment grand)

Different language, different grammar :) French is one of the most difficult language for these I think, a bunch of exceptions. It makes the language more "lovely" to hear but less "effective". Here we say English is made for business, it is one of those languages that just gets to the point fast and clear overall :)

And there are some adjectives which change meaning depending on whether they are after or before the noun. However, I have noticed that when these adjectives change meaning, often it the meaning that it has when before the noun has some degree of emotion or personality to it.

For example, ma propre chemise vs ma chemise propre (my own shirt vs my clean shirt). Or mon cher ami vs ma chère chemise (my dear friend vs my expensive shirt).

Yes many words have different meanings. It can get confusing. I can't imagine someone speaking a foreign language learning French :)

BTW I would be interested to read if someone shared his experience.

So in my experience, that was not the hard part of learning French, or Spanish for that matter. For someone coming from a non-gendered language, the gender of nouns is taxing to memorize. Often knowing what the correct word is and how it is spelled will have nothing to do with what gender it is.

The other hard part of learning French (for me) was the conjugation of verbs in various tenses, and specifically any words that are exceptions to the normal rules. If you take a look at a french grammar book for (e.g.) English speakers, it's likely that it will mostly concern conjugation.

English object-noun adjectival order (left to right): Quantity > Quality > Size > Measure > Shape > Age > Color > Origin > Material > Purpose.

Easy to remember because the stronger an adjective is tied to what the noun is, the closer it is to the noun. This is why, for example Age is closer than Shape.

I ponder this often because the order of words changes the interpretation and my understanding of writing:

"green great dragon" - the dragon is green and happens to be great

"great green dragon" - the greatness of the dragon comes from the fact that it's green

Snake Plisken? I thought you were dead!

Seriously, in English "green great dragon" is simply wrong - there's no semantic distinction here. Size before color, so it's "great green dragon." Just in case anyone is wondering "great" has the literal (non metaphorical) meaning "large in size."

A great dragon is distinct from a komodo dragon or, from a eurocentric view, a Chinese dragon. 'A green great dragon' makes perfect sense used in the appropriate context.

At Starbucks, whenever I ask for "Grande Iced Americano", they repeated the order by saying "Iced Grande Americano". It's interesting to see that I am not the only one confused about the ordering.

There's a song (I think the band is Mumford and Sons?) called "White Blank Page", which always reminded me of Tolkien's "green great dragon", mentioned in the second answer there.

In a number of the cases, it's not so much "awkward" as "means something else". Consider the difference between "first 50 dates" and "50 first dates".

This question is fascinating but absurd - word order varies to provide emphasis or poetry (adjectives are particularly flexible in this respect), living languages are not constructed on a rational basis but organically in use, and different speakers may well differ on word order without one of them being correct in any meaningful sense.

a similarly fascinating topic: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Expletive_infixation

This is more opinion than fact, as someone who's written professionally but doesn't understand the grammar of his natural language at any deep level: I don't think there are rules, only guidelines, just as there are no firm rules on when to split an infinitive or end with a preposition (those are usually bad style, but there's nothing grammatically wrong with them, and sometimes they're right thing to do.)

In fact, often there are semantic distinctions that ordering betrays, which obviates hard-and-fast rules:

* "A vegetarian Russian lawyer", to me, suggests an attorney of Russian law who is also a vegetarian.

* "A Russian, vegetarian lawyer" suggests a vegetarian lawyer of Russian descent. Ethnicity isn't as important as what kind of law is being practiced, so in this case it's looser-binding and farther from the noun.

I tend to put appearance-related (especially size) adjectives earlier, because it replicates an order of perception. "Big red coat." First, you see something (~5 ms) large (a blob, until it's processed) and then color (~10 ms) comes in, and finally (~50 ms) you focus on its purpose-- it's a coat.

Numbers always come first, for the same reason, even though the way we process small numbers (discrete, under 7) is different from the way we process large ones (continuous, 25+). Size usually comes second. However, there's an art to it, because presentation order also betrays order of impression. "Fat kids, of whom there were nine." You're focusing on them being fat, not how many there are. (You wouldn't say "fat nine kids" because that might suggest an age of 9.)

It seems, to me, like the pattern for appearance-related, concrete adjectives is to go first-to-last by perceptual ordering ("big red bike") but to go least-to-most by importance ordering for abstract concepts ("the new great thing").

Your two 'Russian' examples are different cases because you've thrown a comma into one of them.

A lot of what you say is covered in the rules in the first answer, which themselves don't claim to be final. There are also examples given where numbers come after adjectives - 'the first three days' is the normal way of saying that phase, and reordering it to 'the three first days' is usually only when you're waxing poetical. Or "this long weekend will be the greatest three days of your life!" sounds perfectly normal, and is subtly different to "... will be the three greatest days...".

When I read "A Russian, vegetarian lawyer" I think of some strange Russian practitioner of vegetarian law, or a defendant of vegetarians. On the other hand, the first statement implies the correct idea that he's a lawyer who is Russian and a vegetarian.

Context is important. You're talking about a lawyer. Why does the fact that he's a vegetarian need description at all?

When I read a statement like that, I guess I compose it right to left. Big red bike would be (Big (Red Bike)) the lawyer would be (Vegetarian (Russian Lawyer)) Where Big modifies the Red Bike, and Vegetarian modifies the Russian Lawyer.

The statement in the article with Tolkien and "Great Green Dragon" vs. "Green Great Dragon" would be the same sort of scenario. Are you clarifying the color of the Great Dragon, or are you modifying the size of the Green Dragon. Does "Great Dragon" have some significance past just it's size? You would say "Smiling great white shark", you would never say "Great smiling white shark".

Aural perception and reading perception are going to be different too. You can especially add pauses to emphasize relationships. "A Russian ... vegetarian(emphasis) ... lawyer" might clarify that you're speaking about a Russian man who is a vegetarian and a lawyer, and that you're maybe drawing attention to some contrast or contradiction because he is vegetarian.

But that doesn't explain why (Big Bike) is fine, and so is (Red Bike) but (Red (Big Bike) seems somehow wrong - odd or forced, and would only be used in some special case.

The only explanation is that we use internal, unnoticed rules for which order these adjectives occur in.

> Context is important.

In written languages without word breaks, there's a particular problem with figuring out where one word stops and another begins; I would offer that this is a related problem to this adjective ordering problem.

In practice, with adequate experience, a party who is not trying to be intentionally confusing will generally avoid constructions he knows to be ambiguous.

  > This is more opinion than fact ...
Can you provide evidence of this? Given the number of places I've found pretty much exactly the same thing being stated, I'd love to see evidence to the contrary.


Any study of Linguistics will tell you that any known and repeated structure in a language is the observation of custom not of rules. There is no Congress of Languages that passes a Law of Tongues, no first principle of language that requires things to be conjugated this way or ordered in this way. Language is a temporary contract between the speaker and the listener. A protocol that if I use these sounds in this way, I have a pretty good notion that information will be transferred to the listener.

Over time, as needs change, the contract changes and what I need to say to transfer information changes. More importantly, I have to keep track of several contracts because not all listeners have signed the same one! This is called code-switching, and it's why I talk to my boss differently than to my much younger niece than to my mechanic.

Language prescriptivists don't seem to understand that and will refer to their favorite dictionary and grammar guide (usually published sometime between the 18th and 19th centuries and written by people of the same ilk trying desperately to coax order from chaos) as if they contained the great laws handed down from the God of Languages and will try and convert the World by force to sign the contract that they think all the world should be on.

There are no rules in language, only guidelines.

None of which suggests that the stated rules (or "guidelines", if you prefer) are "more opinion than fact". Yes, they are not as strict as rules of, say, mathematics; and you won't be thrown in jail by the grammar police for braking them. However, there is a customary way of ordering adjectives, and ignoring it will make you sound less natural.

I am in a strange (though these days perhaps not that unusual) situation of speaking English as a second language but being more comfortable with it than with my native tongue. I was never in a primary school and was never officially taught any grammar rules. Yet to me, "red big coat" sounds as strange as it would to a native speaker.

A language is defined by its usage, and the rules/guidelines do shift with time. However, at any particular point there are definitely a "right" and a "wrong" way to construct a sentence. Therefore these rules (weak as they are) are definitely not just "opinion" that can be freely ignored. A rule defined by custom is still a rule.

Nobody said you have to or even should ignore them, just understand that they aren't hard and fast rules. It's incumbent on the language producer to understand the customs that need to be observed to make themselves understood. Not following the custom will seem strange at best and at worst will prevent you from being understood. That's all there is to it.

What is opinion is that some people think that there are hard rules to language and it's simply not the case...it's their opinion that there are such rules, even if fact doesn't support their opinion.

You seem to have a strange definition of "opinion" ...

  > What is opinion is that some people think
  > that there are hard rules to language ...
No, it is a fact that some people think that there are hard rules to language.

But all this is beside the point. Yes, you are absolutely right that language is fluid, changing, different in different places, and trying to produce "proper rules" and "proper grammars" (by some hard-to-define meaning of the word "proper") is like nailing jello to a wall. You can try, but you won't have much luck.

That being said, there are some "rules" which, if you follow them, help you to communicate effectively most of the time. There will be exceptions, and there will be geographical variances, and these are not rules of the language, but rather, they are rules for you to follow while synthesizing constructions.

To be honest, I expect you are in violent agreement, and arguing with attitudes you have found elsewhere, but which I do not hold.

It is a fact that some people have the opinion that there are hard rules to language. Better?

More seriously, I think we're in violent agreement, the difficulty is how we parse the word "rule".

If rule means "something that must be done or you'll be a bad person and the world will end" as many language prescriptivists like to use, then it is a fact that languages do not posses rules of this sort.

If rule means "a mutual set of understood guidelines" then yes, I'm in full agreement that languages can have sets of customary rules that aid construction and understanding, but this set of guidelines is incredibly fluid and can change as you've described including temporal, generational, socioeconomic, ethnic, fluency and other sources of variation that can alter the set so profoundly that two speakers of the same language can be more or less unintelligible to each other yet still be said to be speaking the same language!

Back on topic: "a green great dragon" sounds awkward unless we're having a discussion about the colors of "great dragons" in which case it's perfectly ordered and "a great green dragon" makes no sense since we're not talking about sizes of "green dragons".

However, the original question is interesting even from a descriptive point of view. Essentially, the descriptive version of the question would ask what is a simple set of rules that accurately model the ordering of adjectives in English (or perhaps in a specific dialect/register of English).

  > I don't think there are rules, only guidelines
Every so called grammar "rule" ever written (for natural languages) are written after observing how people spake and write.

Most irrelevant HN post ever? Please stop wasting everyone's time.

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