Aidan Simonds, Contributing Writer
Opinion. Size. Age. Shape. Color. Origin. Material. Purpose. Noun. When describing something, this is the order the adjectives must be placed in. It’s one of the basic rules of the English language, and one that everyone follows everyday. But until recently, most people didn’t even know this rule existed.
In early September, BBC culture editor Matthew Anderson tweeted out a passage from the book The Elements of Eloquence laying out this exact rule. The tweet soon went viral, garnering 40,000 retweets and 70,000 likes. Following this, Mark Forsyth, the author of The Elements of Eloquence wrote an article for BBC explaining this rule in more detail, and even offered some exceptions to the rule, while at the same time revealing another previously unknown rule.
In the article, Forsyth uses classic fairy tale characters as examples. Little Red Riding Hood follows these rules, yet Big Bad Wolf doesn’t; and if we try to follow the rules by saying Bad Big Wolf, it just sounds wrong to our ears. This is another example of a previously unknown rule of the English language. To help explain the rule, Forsyth brings up the concept of reduplication, which is when you repeat a word, but either change a consonant or vowel. Some examples given by Forsyth are lovey-dovey, nitty-gritty, and ding-dong. When using reduplication with a change in vowels, there is a certain order that the vowels go in. If there are three words, the order is I, A, O. If there are two words, I always goes first, and is then followed by either A or O.
Forsyth talks about how the English language is very complex, though for those who have been speaking it their entire life, we don’t think about the complexities of it.
There are about 20 different tenses in the language, many of which native speakers are not even aware of. Forsyth brings up the pluperfect progressive passive tense, which is a tense used for, in Forsyth’s words, “an extended state of action that happened to you prior to another action in the past.” Forsyth himself calls it “rather daunting.” However, when we say things like, “I realized I’d been watched,” we are using this tense without even realizing it.
Another complexity of the English language that may seem strange to non-English speakers is the fact that English speakers often use present-tense when talking about actions that are not presently occurring, like saying “I brush my teeth,” not to say you’re currently brushing your teeth, just saying that you brush your teeth regularly.
The English language seems very complex and daunting for someone who doesn’t speak it natively, as there are tons of unwritten rules like the ones mentioned previously. One of the most commonly used ones is the verb “to think,” which is often used as an auxiliary. We say “I think you’re right,” while someone who is still learning English will say “I am thinking you’re right.” That person is grammatically correct, but the fact that we’ve had years to learn the small complexities of this language makes it seem fairly comical when someone talks like that.
English is a language made up of small complexities that are not discussed, but that everyone knows about anyway. This is what makes it so hard to learn. Unless you’ve been speaking it your whole life, you tend to miss out on all the unwritten rules and tenses that are so common in our everyday speak. The English language is much more fascinating than you would think, but most people don’t even realize it.
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