I was asked recently about word order in the Rihanna song "S&M". There is a line in the chorus that uses the word order of "chains and whips":

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but chains and whips excite me

As a native English speaker (grew-up in the Northeast part of the US), it seems like the word order should be reversed to "whips and chains" - and is how I would write the sentence:

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but whips and chains excite me

Is this merely a case of artistic license? I have been unable to find an official grammar rule (or rule of thumb) that indicates a shorter single-syllable word should come first in a list, but it doesn't sound the way I would expect it to.

Not asking about the good or bad things which may be present in the song - this is just about word order and how the sentence sounds

closed as primarily opinion-based by Edwin Ashworth, Dan Bron, ScotM, tchrist, Mari-Lou A Apr 25 '15 at 12:43

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

  • Presumably that's the order that the song writer liked. Remember, this is an "edgy" song, and the word order might be intentionally set to "feel wrong". And certainly there's no rule in English that the shorter word come first in a list. – Hot Licks Apr 23 '15 at 12:15
  • Aren't both the words single-syllable? – Tushar Raj Apr 23 '15 at 12:20
  • 2
    Related: Name for a type of idiom with two things joined like “raining cats and dogs”, “bread and butter”. It's entirely a matter of opinion (and established usage) which word order seems most "natural". – FumbleFingers Apr 23 '15 at 12:36
  • @Area51DetectiveFiction - they are both monosyllabic, yes – warren Apr 23 '15 at 13:05
  • 1
    @David: Well, I never heard anyone say it's raining dogs and cats, but there are plenty of contexts where people say things like Dogs and cats are natural enemies, so you can't say the sequence is fixed in all contexts. As for bacon and eggs, I think you'll find that in some parts of the US significant numbers of speakers routinely put them the other way around. But you're quite right that I specifically included "established usage" because for some collocations the standard word order is very strongly established (so it's no longer entirely a matter of opinion what you should use). – FumbleFingers Apr 23 '15 at 13:36

As a Brit speaker, I would prefer your word order too, but this is euphony not grammar. I can't entirely explain why the second is better on my ears. Probably because "whips" is a shorter word than "chains" despite being equally monosyllabic, as the vowel is shorter than the diphthong. Classicists will surely talk about dactyls or something.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.