Living in a Multilingual World (The One About Adjectives and Their Order)

Read the two sentences below and tell me which is the correct one:

He is an ugly little fellow.

He is a little ugly fellow.

You guessed right. The first one is the correct one. That is, if we are to go by a paragraph, gone viral last autumn, from a book called The Elements of Eloquence. The extract dealt chiefly with the order in which adjectives in English should appear (only applicable if you’re using more than one adjective per noun): opinion, size, age, shape, colour, origin, material, purpose. That is why “ugly” (my opinion), comes before “little” (size).

But I bet that you, native English speaker, knew that without bothering to read the why. That is because you “felt” it was the right way. It is a strange phenomenon, this “feeling”. I began to experience it when I started to think in English halfway through my uni years.

This is a life-changing event that does not announce itself. I am not exaggerating with the life bit. Just think of someone having to translate internally every single word and phrase that is said in a conversation before voicing them. It would be exhausting. The way the mind goes from translation-based communication to a native-speaker-level, sentence-building mindset is almost magical. It just happens. One minute you are consulting your grammar book, the next you “feel” that this is the way these adjectives ought to be arranged if you want your sentence to make sense.

English is not a language famous for its rules, yet, there are plenty. The fact that not many people care about enforcing them doesn’t mean that we should ignore them. For instance, I would never think of placing and adjective after a noun in English, the way we generally do in Spanish and other romance languages (in the case of English, since it is a Germanic lexicon, the adjective+noun structure makes sense). It is just a rule we learn by rote and apply it without any second thoughts.

I am not aware that adjectives in Spanish must be ranked following a pre-arranged order. The sentence above could well be “Él es un hombre feo y pequeño” or “Él es un hombre pequeño y feo” (notice the conjunction “y” [and]. That’s another difference between the two languages). Perhaps there is a similar rule that I have not yet discovered but I doubt it. We have far too many linguistic precepts to deal with already to even contemplate adding a new one.

Without blowing my own trumpet, I am pretty sure that I have, unconsciously, placed adjectives in the correct order most of the time since I became a fluent English speaker. But it is always gratifying when we are validated by hitherto unknown laws of grammar or syntax.

London-based, Cuban writer. Author of “Cuban, Immigrant, and Londoner”, to be published by Austin Macauley. Has written for The Guardian and Prospect.

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