Thursday, September 8, 2016

Why the green great dragon can't exist

Just a few days ago, the tweet of Matthew Anderson, the editor of BBC Culture, went viral and now, everyone is talking about it. You can read it on BBC Trending. He posted an excerpt from Mark Forsyth's book which I read last year and it's a book which I enjoyed tremendously. I do not like to filch photos from the internet and so I've taken my own photo (from my own book) of the same excerpt posted on that tweet:

In the book, Forsyth tells the story of how Tolkien gave up writing for many years. You see, when he was 7, Tolkien wrote a story about a 'green great dragon' and showed it to his mum who told him that there could only be a great green dragon. Apparently, he was so disheartened by her remark that he didn't write another story for many years after that and we can only thank our fortune that he was not resolute in his decision not to write again.

Forsyth goes on to say in the book that adjectives must be in this order: opinion-size-age-shape-colour-origin-material-purpose before the noun. He then gives this as an example:
a lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife
and he declares that 'if you mess with that word order in the slightest you'll sound like a maniac'.

According to the article in BBC Trending (see the link above), someone else tweeted a different word order:
a lovely old French green rectangular little silver whittling knife
The article goes on to say that we should decide for ourselves if the new order works. Come on, the English language is not so capricious or subjective that individuals can decide for themselves if a phrase is correct or not. Of course the second word order isn't correct. Any English-speaking person can see that and I won't waste my time on it.

What I want to say here is Mark Forsyth has done a great job giving his formula for the order for premodifiers and it's entertaining and fun to read what he has to say but the formula he's given doesn't really work. While it certainly works with the list of adjectives he has given us, it doesn't really work if different premodifiers are used. I'll give a few examples by way of illustration.

We say 'a tall angry man' and not 'an angry tall man'. If 'tall' comes under 'size', where does 'angry' fit in? Supposing you say it comes under 'purpose' and 'tall angry man' would comply with Forsyth's formula, what about 'an angry French man'?

And if 'lovely' comes under 'opinion', presumably so should 'attractive'. But it's more natural to say 'a tall attractive woman' which shows Forsyth's formula to be incorrect.

I can think of myriads of other examples but I think you get the picture. The formula Forsyth has come up with is a good formula but it doesn't really work. The question which I'm sure all my readers are asking is whether there is a formula that works?

Yes, there is. The formula can explain why you say 'a quiet satisfied sleepy look' in that particular order. Forsyth's formula won't work here. But I'm afraid the actual formula is far more complex than what Forsyth has given us. Forsyth's book in which this order of adjectives is found is not a book on grammar. It's a book about rhetoric and he gives his formula for the order of premodifiers just to illustrate the importance of word order in rhetoric. It is just something he talks about in passing. And it's a huge credit to him that even something he talks about in passing can grip the world's attention.

There is no way Forsyth could have given his readers the real formula without putting them to sleep. The real formula requires a long explanation of the different classifications of adjectives and hardcore grammar terms which seem to attract universal revulsion such as 'nonderived', 'deverbal' and 'denominal' will have to be defined clearly. If Forsyth had done that, his book wouldn't have been a bestseller.

But you don't need a formula to get your word order right. Anyone can sense if it is right or wrong which is why it is easy to tell that the person who suggested 'a lovely old French green rectangular little silver whittling knife' is undoubtedly wrong without anyone having to classify each of the premodifiers into the different types of adjectives and subdivide them further, as the actual formula requires.

But sentence structure and word order are very much dependent on the style of the day and changes can be expected after every few decades. For example, a great and most respected grammarian wrote in his book on English usage almost a hundred years ago about a word which he felt was 'too new to deserve respect'. He said further, 'It should be let die'.

I don't think anyone is so brave or foolhardy as to say that that great grammarian got his word order wrong.

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