When we list pairs of words, certain orders seem much more common and natural than others.

A few examples:

  • Fish and chips instead of chips and fish
  • Ladies and gentlemen instead of gentlemen and ladies (likewise, men and women instead of women and men)
  • I'm sure we've all (?) had those disagreements about whether it's Rob and Salma or Salma and Rob (or whatever)

In most of these cases though, I struggle to rationalise why one order sounds more 'right' than another.

Is it purely a historical accident that one order is more common than another? Or are there subtle linguistic rules that are responsible?


3 Answers 3


They are often referred to as irreversible binomials and their fixed order is generally due to conventional usage:

  • A noun phrase consisting of two nouns joined by a conjunction, in which the conventional order is fixed. Examples include bread and butter and kith and kin. (ODO)


Siamese twins (also irreversible binomials,binomials, binomial pairs, freezes):

  • in the context of the English language refer to a pair or group of words used together as an idiomatic expression or collocation, usually conjoined by the words and or or. The order of elements cannot be reversed. The expressions hammer and sickle (two nouns), short and sweet (two adjectives), and do or die (two verbs) are various examples of Siamese twins. When the two words are of equal weight and importance, the balanced binomial is also a bicolon. (Wikipedia)

For example:

Spick and span:

  • Some clue might come from the fact that the phrase is very old and was originally spick and span-new. This is cited in Sir Thomas North's translation of Plutarch's Lives of the noble Grecians and Romanes, 1579:

    • "They were all in goodly gilt armours, and brave purple cassocks apon them, spicke, and spanne newe." (The Phrase Finder)
  • I think that the original order may be due to what seems more fluent to say. I've noticed with all the couples that I know that their names usually appear in a given order when the couple is described "Phil & Becky", "Emma & Peps", etc, but there's no rule to this - it's not always "man then woman" for example. Generally one of the two alternatives will just roll off the tongue a bit better and that tends to be what sticks. Jul 26, 2016 at 7:45
  • @Max Williams - yes, or what "seems more fluent to say" is the result of the continuos usage of a specific set of word order.
    – user66974
    Jul 26, 2016 at 7:55
  • Actually @Josh61 what I meant was even if the phrase is entirely novel, it will tend to "go" in a particular direction. For example, if you picked two random words, and showed them to 100 different people and asked them to pick an order, I think that in most cases there would be a clear majority favouring one particular order. it may be to do with the syllable that comes before the "and" - some syllables roll nicely into "and" and others are slightly more awkward. Jul 26, 2016 at 7:58
  • @Max Williams, that's a good point to make. My impression is that probably each set of words, especially the more traditional ones, may have a specific, distinct reason for the sequence in which they are used. But those are hard to track and probably lost in time. Ultimately common usage set the rule.
    – user66974
    Jul 26, 2016 at 8:04
  • Oh certainly - once it enters the lexicon it's set that way. But it's more interesting to think about why that particular ordering emerged in the first place. Jul 26, 2016 at 8:08

This article seems to explain it and some of the rules that apply


  1. In logical order. As we might expect, there is a logic to a lot of these collocations. Examples include first and second (and other number sequences), cause and effect, old and new, crime and punishment, (mind your) Ps and Qs.

  2. The semantically bigger or better thing comes first: fish and chips, bacon and eggs, meat and vegetables.
    Examples of the better thing first include: good and bad, highs and lows, dos and don’ts, pros and cons. This pattern can sometimes seem to be the opposite of the first rule, e.g. a higher number is bigger than a smaller one, but this rule is not applied to words which can be put in a logical sequence.

  3. Longest last: The longer (or “heavier” to pronounce) word goes last. There are a lot of collocations which seem to obey this rule. Examples include salt and pepper, cloak and dagger, cause and effect, men and women, ladies and gentlemen, cream and sugar. This rule seems to take lower priority than the other rules and often overlaps with them. It may arise from the need to put more complicated words or ideas after simpler ones.

  4. Male often goes before female, e.g. men and women, he and she, his and hers, Mr and Mrs, brothers and sisters, Dear Sir or Madam. There are exceptions, e.g. ladies and gentlemen, (which follows the longest last rule) mum and dad and aunt and uncle.

  5. Some of the Siamese twins follow rules similar to those of adjective order. E.g. we say tall and thin just like we say “a tall thin man” rather than “thin tall man”


I've had a theory about this for a while and was doing a quick Google search to see if anything has been studied on this topic. As a disclaimer, I've never taken a class in linguistics, but my theory is that generally (with exceptions of course) we say names based on where the sound is produced in our mouth/throat.

Sounds such as "k" and "L" require effort in the back of your mouth/throat, whereas "s" "t" "b" are in the front. There is middle ground, of course. cycling the vowels a, e, i, o, u as "ah, eh, ee, oh, ooh," you can feel the effort going from the back of your throat to the front of your mouth.

  • 1
    You don't actually seem to have given a conclusion as to which sounds will make a word be first in the pair...
    – AndyT
    Apr 27, 2017 at 16:27
  • Of course, given a choice, the version that is easier to pronounce will usually be the one that prevails, but it isn't the only reason a fixed expression becomes fixed. Drabs and dribs isn't any harder than its reverse, and I might argue that cry and hue or aft and fore would be easier than theirs.
    – choster
    Apr 27, 2017 at 16:41

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