You don’t have to know the precise grammar rule behind the sentence Me went to the store to know that it’s wrong—but you probably learned it in school, even if you don’t remember it. Object pronouns like me can’t be used as subjects; it should be the subject pronoun I. In other cases, you probably don’t even realize that there is a grammatical explanation behind why a certain sentence or phrase sounds wrong. Big, red machine sounds much better than Red, big machine, right? As Inc. reports, that’s because we automatically use adjectives in a really specific order.
In his lovely, rectangular book The Elements of Eloquence, Mark Forsyth illustrates that order with this example: Lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife. The adjectives start with opinion (little) and progress through an additional seven categories, ending with purpose (whittling).
Here’s the full breakdown:
1. Opinion (lovely)
2. Size (little)
3. Age (old)
4. Shape (rectangular)
5. Color (green)
6. Origin (French)
7. Material (silver)
8. Purpose (whittling)
If you significantly alter that order, you might make it difficult for your listeners or readers to even understand the meaning. Whittling French green lovely rectangular silver old little knife sounds like nonsense. Breaking up whittling and knife with any adjective, like whittling French knife or whittling little knife, almost makes it sound like the knife is currently whittling.
Forsyth’s classification system works well with his example phrase, but he’s not the only grammarian with thoughts on the matter. Cambridge Dictionary offers its own classification system, which includes two extra categories: Physical quality (like thin or rough) and type (like general-purpose or four-sized).
It also slightly reorders Forsyth’s categories, as you can see below:
3. Physical quality
According to those rules, Forsyth’s whittling knife should be a lovely little rectangular old knife, rather than a lovely little old rectangular knife. Breaking up little and old might sound odd, but it’s possible that we’re just really accustomed to hearing little and old right next to each other, as in little old lady or little old me.
As is common in the world of linguistics, there are often different interpretations—and almost always exceptions—when it comes to grammar, and you can definitely rely on your instincts for this one, since they’ve likely been serving you well before you ever knew about adjective order. Hopefully, you’ll never need to describe a noun with more than a few adjectives, anyway.
Curious what other grammar rules you didn’t know you knew? Here are four more.