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What is the rule for adjective order? addresses the rule but does not state if there are any exceptions in common use.

http://theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/sep/13/sentence-order-adjectives-rule-elements-of-eloquence-dictionary goes further and claims, "Unlike many laws of grammar or syntax, this one is virtually inviolable, even in informal speech."

Is it really inviolable?

  • For example, is an "orange silver knife" a knife made of silver painted an orange colour and a "silver orange knife" a knife made of silver perhaps for cutting oranges? – Gnubie Nov 13 '16 at 17:47
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    That's not an exception; that's a change in the classification of the word orange so that it fits the rule. And also a really nice example. – Peter Shor Nov 13 '16 at 17:56
  • "Silver" can be a noun as well as an adjective. "orange silver knife" is weird (in British English), but a "German silver knife" does not contain any silver at all ("German silver" is an alloy of copper and nickel or zinc) while a "silver German knife" is presumably a silver knife made in Germany. – alephzero Nov 13 '16 at 23:15
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Yes; in some cases, the "improper" ordering is more popular than the "proper" one. Occasionally, there's not even a preference for any order between two adjectives.

According to Forsyth, color comes after shape:

Quality > Size > Shape > Color > Provenance
The Elements of Eloquence: Secrets of the Perfect Turn of Phrase

However, in real life, "yellow rectangular" has 99,200 results while "rectangular yellow" gives 94,200 results. The same pattern appears, more drastically in fact, when looking at the results in Google Scholar. "Yellow rectangular" has 2,090 results as opposed to "rectangular yellow" with 489 results.

Ngrams indicates it's been a battle:

(Is it really a law when it can change so often?)


In other cases, it's just anarchy:


[Data from COCA]

According to Forsyth (I think), those all should be opinion-size, i.e. 2+1 as in the second column — but all of them are mixed, and some go pretty strongly the other way.

Big bad modifier order

  • 1
    I'd interpret your graph not as meaning that the order changed, but just as statistical noise. Still, this is a great example that "yellow" and "rectangular" don't have a strong tendency to occur in a fixed order. – Peter Shor Nov 13 '16 at 22:32
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Exceptions are certainly possible. The linked article even mentions one: "Big bad wolf."

Furthermore, it seems to me that adjective order has a lot more freedom if the adjectives are loosely linked with a comma in between them. The article claims no one would say "old silly fool", but I think it would be unremarkable for someone to say "old, silly fool."

Here's a relevant Language Log article by Mark Liberman that discusses the topic: Big bad modifier order

The quoted sentence only seems to make sense to me if we conflate actual descriptive rules of grammar and syntax, as identified by linguists, and "zombie rules" that are prescribed, but that don't actually describe usage accurately, such as "don't end a sentence with a preposition" or "don't start a sentence with a coordinating conjunction." The latter are obviously highly "violable"—not only in informal speech, actually, but even in educated writing (but if you point this out to a prescriptivist, you'll often be told something like "great writers are allowed to break the rules").

But in general, linguists don't expect actual laws of syntax to be violable at all. For example, articles such as "the", "an" and "a" must come before the associated noun ("the child") rather than after ("child the"); this is not optional at all. Compared to an actual "law of syntax" like this, the adjective-order rule is actually pretty violable.

The adjective-order "law" also seems to be acquired by children much later than the law governing the word order of nouns and articles: there's an anecdote about J.R.R. Tolkien writing as a child of seven about "a green great dragon", and being corrected by his mother. Could you imagine a child of this age writing about e.g. "great green dragon a" or "great dragon green a"?

A side point: in my experience, the generally known rules for adjective order in languages like French, Italian or Spanish are also over-simplications. In fact, I'm not aware of any language that has completely, rigidly unviolable rules for ordering adjectives that belong to the same general syntactic category, but you may be able to find an example if you read the literature (I haven't, but the linked Language Log post points to The Cross-Linguistic Distribution of Adjective Ordering Restrictions by Richard Sproat and Chilin Shih).

  • I could certainly imagine a person of any age considering that the phrases "a green little dragon" and "a little green dragon" were completely interchangeable. The problem with "a green great dragon" is that it is hard to pronounce the "t d" combination in "great dragon" unless you speak a dialect of English where consonants are not given much emphasis. – alephzero Nov 13 '16 at 23:21
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I have learned that so-called postpositive adjectives appear in few conventional sentences, archaic forms, or expressions borrowed from other (Romance ) language. In postpositive adjectives (The virtual linguist), you can read:

Learners of English are told that adjectives go before the noun, but there are exceptions to this rule. [...] But there are also certain adjectives that sit very happily after the noun eg there are no rooms available

  • times past
  • God almighty
  • heir apparent
  • words unspoken
  • mission impossible
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    Guess my question didn't make it clear. I was referring to the order of the adjectives themselves, not the order of the adjective and noun. – Gnubie Nov 20 '16 at 1:30
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In regards to an orang silver knife, I could in a strange sense see it as a knife of any material that is orange in color and is designed to shave a bar of silver. Lol

In regards to 'there are no rooms available' not answering the question, I believe it does. Take this situation for example; what if I call a hotel and ask for a specific type of room, say a non-smoking room... the attendant may feel compelled to answer in kind, and thus may reply with a list of adjectives in the order of adjective noun adjective such as; 'we apologize, however there are no non-smoking rooms available. And in a more strange example I could ask for a small purple room, in kind, one might reply; there are no small purple rooms available... this I feel would be an acceptable exception to the rule. Although it might be more appropriate to say there are no small purple available rooms, I think it would sound odd to an American ear. Perhaps 'there are no available rooms that are small and purple', could work, but again this sound a bit awkward to me. My point is it is an answer if you begin to add more adjectives.

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    In this case, "no small purple rooms available" is a whiz-deletion for "no small purple rooms which are available." Making all the adjectives attributive results in "no available small purple rooms" which follows the Quality–size–colour rule of Forsyth. – Andrew Leach Aug 6 '17 at 16:58
  • This should be a comment,  as it is doing nothing but talking about other responses. – Scott Aug 6 '17 at 21:50
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Tick Tock article

This is why "Big Bad Wolf" ends up working even though it's a violation of this particular rule

  • I wonder if that has anything to do with the vowels involved: /i/ is a frontal one, /a/ usually middlish, and /o/ (or /u/ for the wolf) is a back one (see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vowel_diagram) -- so it goes from front to back in sequence. – Oliver Mason Jun 22 '18 at 13:38

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