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My English teacher just asked us to write a random sentence in English.

Off the top of my head I wrote "I like to eat apples and bananas".

She highlighted "apples" and said: "man, this is blatantly wrong".

"Uh, what's wrong, M'am?"

"It should be bananas and apples. English people always enumerate things in reverse alphabetical order. Always. Just like when they enumerate parts of the body, they always converge to the heart. Always. We do that automatically, without even thinking about it. Not doing it is wrong".

Granted, I'm not a native speaker, but I've never heard anything like this before.

Bullshit or what?

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14  
It really sounds like your teacher is making a joke or having fun messing you around. –  delete Sep 16 '10 at 21:01
12  
Indeed. Comparing oranges and apples would be even more wrong than comparing apples and oranges. –  mmyers Sep 16 '10 at 21:13
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Ouch indeed. This, plus the fact that she didn't even knew about the children song somehow makes me think that she's a quack teacher. Gonna quit and ask for a refund. Thanks a million for your replies. This was so disturbing (and she wasn't making a joke or something, she was really serious about this, and every student took note). –  Frank Sep 16 '10 at 21:17
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"English people always enumerate things in reverse alphabetical order". Speaking as an English person, I have to say that this is a new one on me. –  Brian Hooper Sep 16 '10 at 21:44
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Just wondering: does the teacher speak English natively? –  waiwai933 Sep 17 '10 at 5:43
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6 Answers

I think your teacher is either "full of it" or "misinformed"

While it may be true that in English we usually enumerate parts of the body from the outside in, I'd suspect it has more to do with creating a physical starting point that is furthest from our eyes and looking for a way to create a list without forgetting something. I doubt this is limited to English, but is more of a "human" thing.

For random objects, I'd suspect people probably sort from easiest to recall to most difficult, or from most to least favorite, from biggest to smallest, by what sounds right or just randomly... or according to a set phrase, rhyme or song that's established culturally.

Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!

It's raining cats and dogs

strawberry rhubarb pie

They fight like cats and dogs

They're playing a game of cat and mouse

I'll have a ham and cheese sandwich

Would you like some cheese and crackers?

I'm having a wine and cheese party

I feel like a rum and coke

I'll take a Coke and Lime

In some of those examples, the more important element is stated first, but in many, the order has been established naturally, with less importance to order. Saying that, I'm sure there are certain patterns you could find based on how things sound together, or how many syllables there are... but the opposite is not wrong.

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1  
There is a song called Apples and Bananas, so that order sounds more natural to me having heard the song. The other order, as you stated, is not wrong, unless you are trying to sing the song. –  Dan Sep 17 '10 at 5:33
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"Oranges and lemons, say the bells of Saint Clement's..." –  Brian Hooper Sep 17 '10 at 8:10
    
I think the reason "bananas and apples" doesn't sound right is the number of repetetive "a" sounds in "Bananas and". --> ba-na-nas-and..." –  Armstrongest Sep 17 '10 at 16:55
    
Enumerate parts of the body from the outside in?! I've never heard of that one either. I have heard the song "Head and shoulders, knees and toes" –  thursdaysgeek Sep 20 '10 at 23:34
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There are many word pairs that are usually stated in certain orders. Using them in the uncommon order is not necessarily wrong but it sounds odd.

Good and Evil

Apples and Oranges

Men and Women

Ladies and Gentlemen

I think you just have to memorize the order for each possible pair. Your teacher's assertion that the pairs have to be in reverse alphabetical order is simply false.

As for organizing the body parts by direction, I don't think people follow specific rules. I would probably start at the top and work my way down. I can't see how converging in the middle would help unless you also have to go clockwise or counter-clockwise.

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Don't forget "Law and Order"! –  Graeme Perrow Sep 17 '10 at 16:21
    
There's a They Might Be Giants song called "Women and Men", but since they've made a career out of singing nonsense (and perfectly good sense that sounds like nonsense), it's probably a bad counterexample. –  MT_Head May 23 '11 at 3:48
    
@MT_Head: When the words are gender-specific, recent political correctness trends have people putting the woman first if she was traditionally second, or alternating, to avoid any appearance of gender bias. But to my ear the "natural" order is "Men and Women". However, that's purely based on conditioning and not on reason. –  Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 May 24 '11 at 12:01
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Shiny - I wouldn't want to speak for TMBG's political viewpoint, but I think I can guarantee that in that song, they were going for the rhyme AND for the disruption of expectations. (It begins "When the ship runs out of ocean, and the vessel runs aground, Land's where we know the boat is found. Now, there's nothing unexpected about the water giving out - Land's not a word we have to shout.") Their whole corpus is based on turning conditioning sideways and shaking it. –  MT_Head May 24 '11 at 18:35
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Your teacher is wrong. Print out a copy of http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=1998 and lend it to her. It mentions various factors - word length, consonant sounds, gender bias - which do appear, from scientific study, to be genuinely relevant.

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English people always enumerate things in reverse alphabetical order.

On the scale of language evolution, it hasn't been long since a significant part of the population became literate. Therefore this rule doesn't make any sense.

This isn't to say that “apple and bananas” and “bananas and apples” are strictly equivalent. For example, “apples and oranges” is an established idiom, and “apples and bananas” might be favored for the similarity. But it has nothing to do with the spelling.

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No difference I see, young padavan. :)

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I've never heard that rule, and I've never heard anyone follow it. There are even plenty of phrases in English that don't follow it that are part of the culture. It happens that "apples and bananas" is one of them.

You ask "bullshit or what." I can unequivocally say that it definitely isn't "what."

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