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Has this ever happened to you: You write a question, include a list or two in the discussion, and then come back to edit that list because the order doesn't sound "right"? Off the top of my head, I can remember it happening to me twice here on English L&U: I changed God, man, and nature to read man, nature, and God when answering one question, and the tireless kiamlaluno edited a question of mine from trunk...boot to boot...trunk.

Why in fact do certain constructions of lists sound more pleasant to the ear than others? Why can't it be child, man, and woman rather than man, woman, and child? All the principles I can think of, such as ordering by "natural" progression, ordering by length of word, and ordering to preserve internal rhyme, seem to have exceptions or be violated for some sayings. Does one principle have supremacy over the other? Are there any others I'm missing? And finally, how can we be sure what sounds pleasant isn't just historical inertia carried over from a first well-recognized coinage?

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@RegDwight: Of course that question sheds no light on the matter since the consensus there was that that isn't true. –  Yitzchak Mar 24 '11 at 1:23
    
The sentence was speaking of British and American speakers, but then listed an American word and a British word. I simply ordered the words basing on the order used for the speakers; it was not a matter of ordering the words alphabetically. –  kiamlaluno Mar 24 '11 at 3:26
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6 Answers

I think the primary principle guiding our list-making probably comes from the meanings of the words: as in your example "man, nature and God," we put them in an order that makes sense somehow (size, importance, etc.).

After that, I think meter, rhyme and alliteration factor into our ordering. It would be interesting to look at well-established lists and determine what meter they use and whether dactyls are more common than trochees (Adam and Eve vs. Eve and Adam) and so forth.

Of course, previously established list orders will trump others, so that's why certain lists will sound "wrong."

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There is an answer to the question RegDwight linked to that may help. Poster linked to a study on the subject of euphony:

http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=1998

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+1 for science, but I think this mainly goes to show how far linguists are from producing anything like the requested general theory of euphony. –  Jason Orendorff Mar 24 '11 at 2:45
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Looks like there's a whole branch of linguistics called phonology that deals with these very questions. I am not qualified to speak on it, but I'm sure some regulars here are. I would just say that while historical inertia must carry a good deal of weight in these matters, I think you are right in guessing that there may be something larger going on here. There does seem to be a sort of linguistic feng shui at work in our word order choices.

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Unfortunately, as an English teacher I have come to realise that sometimes you have to accept the answer:

just because it is

This fits particularly well with this question, where the answer really does appear to be

because it sounds right.

As a few have mentioned, existing collocations will already have their precedent, so "chips and fish" or "dogs and cats" would simply sound wrong to many because of their well established forms.

In the case of listing items, I would say that every case is different. Depending on the contexts of your lists, you may have differing priorities. Sometimes 'order of importance' is relevant while others 'alphabetical order' may seem appropriate.

When nothing like this is involved, however, we most often revert back to "because it sounds right".

Exactly why it sounds right can again be different in each case.

Just to mention one, the ease/difficulty of producing a sound often plays a large part. For example, two vowel sounds meeting is abnormal in English and so when we have an instance of it, we tend to avoid it:

(I'll use people's names as the example because, as I said above, other objects tend to have a context that dictates priority.)

Mike and Eva (not 'Eva and Mike' because of the uncomfortable stop between the two 'a' sounds)

and for the cynics that believe we always put men first:

Janine and Dara (not 'Dara and Janine', for the same reason).

and for those who insist on something other than people's names, consider:

'a banana and an apple' -or- 'an apple and a banana'

Indeed, it is for the same reason that we have two indefinite articles, 'an' and 'a'.

There are languages where double vowel sounds are quite normal and this explanation would not apply. However, for English speakers learning these languages, the unfamiliar sounds are the hardest to acquire, naturally. (In Indonesian, sorry is 'maaf', pronounced 'ma-af', which just feel uncomfortable.)

There would be many other reasons to mention, but I hope this shows how there is slightly more to it than the sometimes apparent randomness.

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We usually put the most important item first in a list (if Eve had had a mother, she'd surely have refered to the first couple as Eve and Adam).

The main exception to the general rule is in "list of three" elements (as used in rhetoric and "persuasive" speech), where the last item is the one intended to have most force (and hopefully, give the politician his standing ovation).

To a lesser extent, euphony, repetition of what others say, blind chance, etc., may all affect the eventual sequence uttered.

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In which context it's interesting to compare the number of Google hits for quotated "red green blue" with "green red blue", for example. –  FumbleFingers Mar 26 '11 at 14:50
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"red green blue" vs "green red blue" is a red herring. There is the immensely popular, widely accepted Red-Green-Blue color model, but there is no such thing as a green-red-blue color model, so of course the results will be heavily skewed in favor of the former. Much like with "cyan magenta yellow key" (another immensely popular standard) vs "magenta key yellow cyan" (just a bunch of words). –  RegDwigнt Mar 26 '11 at 21:20
    
@RegDwight: I realise RGB affects that particular list, but I still find it interesting. Note that the effect persists even without quotation. I use Google "Instant", so now I try to use the likely commonest word order as well as commonest words, so the autocomplete can do more of the typing. –  FumbleFingers Mar 27 '11 at 2:10
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All language rules are descriptive rather than prescriptive, so something "sounding right" is the better measure of how things are ordered than some artificial hierarchy imposed upon it. That being said, what sounds right to one group of people might jar the ear of another. Given enough time, this is how different dialects and ultimately different languages appear.

"I have a thermos bottle with cream of tomato soup," she said. "And a lobster-salad sandwich on thin slices of white bread. I have celery, carrot sticks, and black olives, and a little cardboard shaker of salt for the celery. And two plums and a tiny basket of cherries. And vanilla pudding with chocolate sprinkles and a spoon to eat it with."

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