Little Pastel Fall Wild Flowers

I recently heard that English has a rule regarding the order of multiple adjectives applied to the same noun.  Failure to follow it is said to sound odd, perhaps even deranged. This article, “Ordering Multiple Adjectives,” articulates the rule.  It states:

The usual order is:

Quantity, Value/opinion, Size, Temperature, Age, Shape, Colour, Origin, Material

Wow. This made me happy that I’ve internalized the rule, because I’d hate to have to remember it.

But hold on! I think there is a simpler approach.  I’m no linguist, so this could be wrong, but even so I’d wager that it’s a good approximation.

Here goes: by default, adjectives are right-associative modifiers. (The default can be overridden by use of hyphens.)

Right associative” is not so arcane as it sounds — it just means that we group the application from right to left.  If adjectives are right-associative, the phrase

small red Asian flower

would be grouped

small (red (Asian flower))

…and means an Asian flower that is red, and smaller than most, at least among red flowers.

If adjectives were left-associative, the grouping would be

(((small red) Asian) flower

…a flower of an Asian who is a small shade of red, whatever that would be.

But adjectives are right-associative, with the result that the more salient the specialization or characterization described by the adjective, the closer it will be to the noun.

A shared sense of salience is probably why there seems to be a grammatical rule. Grammar, after all, is a formalization of “what sounds right”, which in part is what we usually hear. I expect that most sane members of a particular culture will have a similar judgement as to what is salient, and hence we will hear a consistency in how adjectives are applied.

But there are so many exceptions that the rule seems useless.  For example, I’ve recently heard that there is a Croatian aphorism:

All mushrooms are edible; some only once.

If this expression has a venerable history, then by the category-based rule, we’d call it an “old Croatian saying”.  But English has the well-known phrase “old saying”, and it seems to me that calling the expression a “Croatian old saying” would be acceptable.  Which to choose would depend on what you are emphasizing: is this a Croatian aphorism that has been around for centuries, or is it a tidbit of folklore that happens to be from Croatia?

At least we can agree that we don’t mean “Old-Croatian saying”, an oft-repeated phrase of certain geriatric Slavs.


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