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NPR Arts & Life

BBC Editor Highlights Often Overlooked English Language Rule

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And you'll never see a movie called "My Greek, Fat, Big Wedding."

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Or hear a song called polka dot, yellow, itsy-bitsy, teenie-weenie (ph) bikini.

CORNISH: That's because of a rule in the English language about the order in which adjectives are used before a noun.

MARK FORSYTH: You've got to go opinion, size, age, shape, color, origin, material, purpose, noun. So you can have a lovely, little, old, rectangular, green, French, silver whittling knife, but you can't mess that order up. And if you do, you start something really very, very odd.

CORNISH: That's Mark Forsyth, author of "The Elements Of Eloquence: How To Turn The Perfect English Phrase." He says most native English speakers intuitively know to place their adjectives by opinion, size, age, shape, color, origin, material, purpose.

SHAPIRO: And that means big and fat before Greek and itsy-bitsy, teenie-weenie (ph) before polka dot and yellow.

CORNISH: Forsyth says nobody knows why adjectives must be in this order, but he says if you mess with the order, you can get a very startling effect.

FORSYTH: It will make people stop in their tracks and wonder why they feel it's wrong.

CORNISH: He says when "Lord Of The Rings" author J.R.R. Tolkien was a boy, he wrote a story.

FORSYTH: And it was about a green, great dragon, and his mother said you can't have a green, great dragon. And he said - why not? And she said, I don't know, but you can't.

SHAPIRO: BBC culture editor Matthew Anderson read Forsyth's book, found it interesting and tweeted about the proper order of adjectives. He has been retweeted around 50,000 times as of today.

MATTHEW ANDERSON: Now you wouldn't think that that's the kind of thing that's going to send the internet wild.

CORNISH: Anderson's Twitter feed is now filled with replies, like, I need a brand new, read, correcting pen.

SHAPIRO: And colorless, green ideas sleep furiously with great, blue unicorns.

CORNISH: One person who saw his tweet was Quartz writer and English major Cassie Werber. She says rules like this one are meticulously taught to non-native English speakers, and they're one reason why the language can seem scary.

CASSIE WERBER: It's something that we can do as native speakers, but seems almost impossible to somebody trying to learn it. Imagine a Hungarian 10-year-old trying to learn that order of adjectives in front of a noun in a completely foreign language. It's really, really difficult.

CORNISH: Werber says she's planning to write about a brand new solution for people who find this rule hard to remember. It's an internet bot that arranges your adjectives in the proper order. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.