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I have just listened to a presentation to adjective order in my linguistics class, however, it failed to answer my question. Would an English speaker say "this is a dead pregnant cat" or "this is a pregnant dead cat." Why would one be better than the other?

  • There are some situations like this one where consecutive adjectives sound a little awkward no matter what order you use. A native speaker might avoid that by instinctively rearranging the sentence: This dead cat is pregnant (or even this pregnant cat is dead, depending on what's the most pertinent issue). – Chappo Says SE Dudded Monica Oct 31 '18 at 23:03
  • Alex, for your reference, note that our other site English Language Learners offers a wealth of information that's useful for both native speakers and learners. I think this kind of question would be warmly welcomed on that site, given the usefulness of any good answer for other users of the site :-) – Chappo Says SE Dudded Monica Oct 31 '18 at 23:06
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Well, I guess it's Hallowe'en...

This would be written as

This is a dead pregnant cat.

The nuance of this is that the attributes are parsed in reverse chronological order, or backwards from the noun.

This is a cat.
This is a pregnant cat.
This is a dead pregnant cat.

Which implies the cat got pregnant before it got dead. If you were to write it the other way, the meaning is changed to imply that a dead cat somehow got pregnant.

  • Thus a cremated dead pregnant cat. – Michael Harvey Oct 31 '18 at 19:44
  • It may seem odd that the adjectives go in reverse order, but this is a consequence of putting adjectives before nouns in English. If we use brackets in the mathematical sense where they show which bit is to be interpreted first then we get a cremated(dead(pregnant(cat))). Mathematicians call this situation, where the order affects the meaning non-associative. Of course, if we put adjectives after the noun as they do in French then the adjectives would be in chronological order: une chatte gravide morte = a cat pregnant dead. – David Robinson Oct 31 '18 at 21:34
  • There is another structure possible in English. If we want to emphasise the individual adjectives, or the order in which they apply, we put them in chronological order, but separated by commas: a pregnant, dead, cremated cat. – David Robinson Oct 31 '18 at 21:37

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