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Which comes first in a sentence?

I know some word pairs such as bacon and eggs, where bacon always comes first. E.g:

Make me bacon and eggs for dinner, honey.

Cats and dogs are the two most common pets I know of. What is the preferred order?

  1. Dogs are superior.

    Don't put dogs and cats together, they might fight!

  2. Cats are superior.

    Don't put cats and dogs together, they might fight!

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I think you'll find that there really aren't any hard-and-fast rules; "cats and dogs" and "dogs and cats" are equally valid, except in specific phrases: it never "rains dogs and cats", for example. Even your example isn't as clear-cut as you might think: here's an NGram contrasting "eggs and bacon" with "bacon and eggs"; "bacon and eggs" is more common now, but "eggs and bacon" is definitely valid - and used to be the more common form. –  MT_Head Jul 5 '11 at 0:33
    
And as this NGram shows, even with the prevalence of "it's raining cats and dogs", "dogs and cats" comes out ahead. But seriously: nobody says "it's raining dogs and cats". –  MT_Head Jul 5 '11 at 0:37
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"c" comes before "d"... so cats come first :) –  user10621 Jul 5 '11 at 1:08
    
Shirley Valentine (in the eponymous play by Willy Russell) repeatedly says "chips and egg". I take it this is a Liverpool expression, because this is the only place I have ever heard that order, as opposed to "egg and chips". All going to make the point that there is usually no preferred order. –  Colin Fine Jul 5 '11 at 14:39
    
@Colin Fine: Willy Russell would be quite capable of using that order for several other reasons besides the possibility of actual authenticity, though I honestly don't know. But surely in most common A and B parings there is a preferred order? Most important first, usually, IMHO. –  FumbleFingers Jul 7 '11 at 20:47

3 Answers 3

up vote 6 down vote accepted

Given the phrase it's raining cats and dogs, you might be led to believe that this is the usual ordering. However, COCA gives the following frequencies:

cats and dogs    272
dogs and cats    359

So it seems there isn't really a preferred ordering.

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What is the COCA? –  Thursagen Jul 5 '11 at 0:39
    
I googled "dogs and cats", and it came up with three citations of dogs and cats, and the rest were cats and dogs. –  Thursagen Jul 5 '11 at 0:40
    
@Ham It's a corpus of the English language that has been tagged with parts of speech. –  z7sg Ѫ Jul 5 '11 at 0:42
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@Ham Google search results don't mean all that much but here's the googlefight: googlefight.com/… –  z7sg Ѫ Jul 5 '11 at 0:43
    
@Ham: You need to google the phrases with quotes: "dogs and cats" then "cats and dogs". I just did, 14.8 and 14.7 million respectively. I was suprised that "dogs and cats" was that popular. –  Lee Kowalkowski Jul 5 '11 at 8:53

Regarding any pair of nouns in general, if you're married, just ask yourself how your parents refer to you and your partner. Compare that to how your partner's parents refer to the two of you.

In a bygone age it might have been standard practice for both sets of parents to name the man first, but today each parent names their own child first. And usually no-one even notices both naming systems being used concurrently at family gatherings and the like.

The basic point is people usually name the more important of any such pair first.

Regarding cats and dogs, apart from the common idiom that it might be raining them in that order, there's no significant preference either way for other contexts. As the chart shows, 'twas ever thus. Some people are cat people, some prefer dogs. They tend to name their preferred pet type first.

.

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"I think this is a silly question"... ? –  Thursagen Jul 5 '11 at 2:28
    
Well other answerers haven't found it "obvious". –  Colin Fine Jul 5 '11 at 14:42
    
@Colin Fine: Perhaps it's just me then. I thought the "more important" noun normally came first in any pairing, and that most people have a marked preference for either cats or dogs. I just assumed that if pressed, that would be their preferred word order. So many individuals would be clear about their order, but collectively there'd be no meaningful concensus. To be honest, I still think the answers here confirm that view. Maybe "silly question" was a bit ott, but I'm still not convinced it's about English language and usage. –  FumbleFingers Jul 5 '11 at 16:58
    
I've knocked out the 'silly question' bit, since it obviously annoys folk. And added a picture to prove what I thought was obvious. –  FumbleFingers Jul 5 '11 at 23:16

While "cats and dogs" is common, especially in popular idioms noted by others ("raining cats and dogs", "fighting like cats and dogs"), it would not surprise me in the least if the "dogs and cats" order received a significant boost from people quoting Bill Murray's character, Dr. Peter Venkman, in the 1987 movie Ghostbusters:

Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together... mass hysteria!

Very handy when you want to humorously indicate the potential for great catastrophe, or perhaps more commonly, sardonically when you think the dangers are being exaggerated.

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+1 What do you mean, "biblical"? –  Ben Jackson Jul 5 '11 at 3:40
    
"would not surprise"? - I'd be astonished if people quoting from Ghostbusters had any measurable effect on relative usage figures. –  FumbleFingers Jul 5 '11 at 23:07
    
@FumbleFingers I guess it's a matter of experience, age, and social circles. My experience was that people quoted the movie and the line a lot in the few years following its release, enough that "dogs and cats" certainly didn't sound strange, despite the fact that it's used the other way in the common idioms. Doesn't mean I'm saying it did have a huge effect, just that I wouldn't be surprised. –  Matthew Frederick Jul 7 '11 at 20:36
    
@FumbleFingers I'm curious, though: what is your theory of the origin of common phrasings, of how one thing "sounds right" and another "sounds wrong", even though there's no grammatical rule? Something besides popular culture? –  Matthew Frederick Jul 8 '11 at 19:27
    
@Matthew Frederick: My theory, as embodied by my answer, is that ordinarily the more important of a pair is named first. I do not think that "cats and dogs" is a general-purpose pairing form for those two animals - it just rains them in that order. If you were rounding up strays of both types I bet you'd put the dogs top of the 'wanted' list. There is no 'standard' order for them, as proved by usage analysis. –  FumbleFingers Jul 8 '11 at 21:27

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