A Word, Please

A Word, Please Adjectives in order

A few weeks ago, someone tweeted a picture of a page from a book. My husband pointed it out to me. Then a friend posted it on Facebook. Then another friend posted it on Facebook. Then another friend emailed it to me. Then still another friend emailed it to me.

Within a few days, one Facebook posting of the excerpt had 73,000 shares and 2,000 comments. A good number of comments were of the “This is fascinating!” and “I love this!” variety. I’ve never seen a book excerpt get so much traction. People went nuts for it.

Here’s the meaty part of the post, which came from a 2013 book called “The Elements of Eloquence” by Mark Forsyth: “Adjectives in English absolutely have to be in this order: opinion-size-age-shape-colour-origin-material-purpose Noun. So you can have a lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife. But if you mess with that word order in the slightest you’ll sound like a maniac.”

As I replied to the five people who pointed it out to me: That’s one big, beautiful overstatement. You see, according to Forsyth, “big,” a size, should come before “beautiful,” an opinion. So with just a few seconds’ effort you can disprove Forsyth’s assertion that the adjectives “absolutely have to be in this order.”

Had Forsyth pointed out that adjectives are usually in this order, his assertion would have been just as interesting without crossing into the realm of the factually inaccurate. But if he had, would the post have caught on the way it did? Did people love it because it’s interesting? Or did they love it because it’s stated as an absolute?

Pondering that question, I’m reminded of an acquaintance who, when he found out that I write about grammar, immediately brought up the “rule” about how it’s wrong to end a sentence with a preposition. The example he gave was “Where are you at?”

I’m also reminded of the friend who, long before I knew much about grammar, taught me the “rule” that it’s wrong to split an infinitive. He cited what I would later learn was the most famous example of this supposed error, “to boldly go.”

I’m also reminded of a woman I met at a journalism conference who’d been taught that it’s wrong to start a sentence with “it,” as in, “It is nice to meet you.”

I’m also reminded of the countless people I’ve met who were taught it’s wrong to start a sentence with “and,” “but,” “so,” “because” or “hopefully.”

Most of these people didn’t seem to understand the rule they were citing. For example, the real grammatical issue with “Where are you at?” is not that the preposition is at the end. It’s that it’s there at all. “Where are you?” doesn’t need “at.” For that reason, some people object to this usage. But just as there’s no rule that says you can’t end a sentence with a preposition, there’s no rule that you can’t use unnecessary words from time to time. As a result, neither “Where are you from?” nor “Where are you at?” constitutes a grammatical error.

Those other rules are just as erroneous. You can start a sentence with “and” or “it” or “because. “You can put an adverb between “to” and “go.” You can use “hopefully” as a sentence adverb. Yet, like that page from the Forsyth book, these fake rules are perpetuated with a giddy enthusiasm that’s inexplicable when you consider that the people pushing them haven’t made much effort to understand what they’re saying.

The English language is tough. It’s seriously short on the kind of universal rules that can be expressed as pithy absolutes. And that may be why people so eagerly embrace fake rules. Absolutes offer a sense that, somewhere under all the weird spellings and strange idioms and odd structures of English, there’s a logic that would let us conquer it. But it’s just not true. For better or worse, English rules will continue to be one big, ugly mess.

June Casagrande is the author of “The Best Punctuation Book, Period.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.