The Very Particular Grammar Rule You Probably Never Knew—But Use Every Day

CarlosDavid.org/iStock via Getty Images
CarlosDavid.org/iStock via Getty Images

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:

1. Opinion
2. Size
3. Physical quality
4. Shape
5. Age
6. Color
7. Origin
8. Material
9. Type
10. Purpose

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.

[h/t Inc.]

9 Grammatically Correct Gifts for Language Lovers on National Punctuation Day

Uncommon Goods
Uncommon Goods

Have a friend or relative who's quick to correct your typos? Does your significant other get a thrill from showing you how to really use a semicolon? Give them a gift that celebrates their love of (grammatically correct) language.

1. The Elements of Style Illustrated; $15

Elements of Style Illustrated Book.
Penguin Random House

William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White's extensive—and sometimes snarky—guide to grammar was published in 1920, but it's still considered a go-to for writing purists who are wary of change. The bookshelf staple, with a foreword by Roger Angell and updated with 57 colorful illustrations by Maira Kalman, is sure to offer up hours of education (which is entertainment to the language lover in your life).

Find It: Amazon

2. Pencils; $9

Best Grammar Gifts
Fresh Prints of CT

Mixing up their and they're is a simple mistake that we're all guilty of, but these pencils will remind you to take an extra moment while writing to make sure you're getting the basics right.

Find It: Amazon

3. Punctuation Bookends; $25


JHP

These punctuation-themed bookends are ideal for keeping your reading material in order; they’re heavy enough to do the job but not big enough to overshadow your collection. Or you can just use them as paperweights or simple home decorations.

Find It: Amazon

4. Cheese & Crackers Serving Board; $48

Uncommon Goods Ampersand Cheese Board
Uncommon Goods

Bring your love of punctuation to your next wine and cheese party with this maple wood serving board that arranges your finger food in the shape of an ampersand.

Find it: Uncommon Goods

5. Punctuation Poster; $36

Punctuation and Grammar Gifts.
FolioCreations

Everyone knows about the question mark and the semicolon, but what about the interrobang? This simple poster from FolioCreations, available in three different sizes and 60 different colors, celebrates the punctuation that really helps writers get their point across. It's printed on satin luster paper with ChromaLife 100 inks, creating a long-lasting piece of artwork.

Find It: Etsy

6. Shady Characters; $14

Shady Characters Book
W. W. Norton & Company

Keith Houston's book offers up a thorough look at the history of the written word. Readers can learn about the rich stories behind punctuation marks, including tales that cover everything from Ancient Roman graffiti to George W. Bush.

Find It: Amazon

7. Ampersand Marquee; $16

Grammar Gifts
Darice/Amazon

The ampersand is a divisive punctuation mark in writing, but it's widely loved in design; the attractive logogram can be found everywhere from wedding invitations to tattoos. This metal light stands at almost 10 inches, making it a nice statement piece in any home.

Find It: Amazon

8. Pop Culture Parts of Speech; $29

Grammar is even more accessible with the help of beloved pop culture characters. ET, Robocop, Holly Golightly, Walter White, and more all come together to help teach tricky grammar terms. The poster is broken down into seven basic parts: nouns, verbs, adjectives, pronouns, adverbs, prepositions, and conjunctions.

Find It: Pop Chart Lab

9. Owl Shirt; $15

Best Grammar Gifts
Bookworm Basics

Do you have a friend who's always correcting everyone with a stern "whom"? With the help of two owls, this shirt pokes light fun at two counterparts to the oft-neglected word. The lightweight, cotton shirt comes in a classic white with sizes for men, women, and children.

Find It: Amazon

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

It’s Official: Merriam-Webster Has Added They to Its Online Dictionary as a Nonbinary Pronoun

psphotograph/iStock via Getty Images
psphotograph/iStock via Getty Images

Two and a half years after the Associated Press announced it would recognize they as a singular pronoun, America’s oldest dictionary is following suit. The Guardian reports that Merriam-Webster has officially added they into its online dictionary as a grammatically correct nonbinary pronoun.

Merriam-Webster notes in a blog post that people have been using they as a singular pronoun since the 1300s, and quoted an 1881 letter in which Emily Dickinson refers to a person of unknown gender with the pronouns they, theirs, and even themself. The post also mentions that using you as a singular pronoun wasn’t always considered grammatically correct, either: it was born out of necessity, gained popularity in casual conversation, and eventually became formally accepted as a singular pronoun.

Merriam-Webster does acknowledge that this new application of they differs from how the general public has most commonly used it in previous centuries. In the past, the singular they has referred to “a person whose gender isn’t known or isn’t important in the context.” For example, you would probably say “Tell each person that they are responsible for cleaning up their own trash,” rather than “Tell each person that he or she is responsible for cleaning up his or her own trash.” Now, however, we use they to describe a person who simply doesn't identify as either male or female.

It’s a much more direct use of the pronoun, and it’s this definition that Merriam-Webster is adding to the existing dictionary entry for the word they: “used to refer to a single person whose gender identity is nonbinary.”

And with that, “Don’t use they as a singular pronoun” has become nothing more than bad writing advice, much like “Don’t split infinitives” and these other grammar myths.

[h/t The Guardian]

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