You’ve heard before how tough it is for non-English speakers to learn the language. There are strange spellings, surprising pronunciations, and random exceptions to nearly every rule. (Why do tough, though, and thought sound so different? The world may never know.)
Rules about word order come naturally to native English speakers—with some gentle reinforcement from our elementary school teachers—but are hard to teach those who are learning English as a second language. For instance, did you realize you always arrange adjectives the same way?
When using multiple words to describe an object, native English speakers naturally list the adjectives in this order:
If more than one adjective falls into the same category, the order for those words doesn’t matter. In The Elements of Eloquence: How to Turn the Perfect English Phrase, author Mark Forsyth gives an example of how the right arrangement plays out. “You can have a lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife,” he writes. “But if you mess with that order in the slightest you’ll sound like a maniac.” Describe a green silver whittling French old little rectangular lovely knife, and you’ll probably lose your listeners. (Related: These grammar rules make you sound smarter.)
OK, so you’ll probably rarely describe an item with that many words. But the rule becomes even clearer when you stick with just a few adjectives. For instance, you’d say an “awesome (1), old (3), red (5) convertible” or a “small (2), round (4), wooden (7) bowl” without switching up the words.
More than likely, you wouldn’t have been able to come up with that list of adjective order if no one had pointed it out to you—after all, it just comes naturally if English is your first language—but English learners devote entire lesson plans to memorizing the right arrangement.
“I think what fascinates people about language is that in one sense it’s so familiar—we use it every day (unless you’re a lighthouse keeper)—but we don’t know that we know so much about it,” Forsyth told BBC Trending. “It’s the odd rules about the order of adjectives or ablaut reduplication, or the bits of etymology that are utterly obvious once you point them out.”