Humor: Not Making the Top 5
Meme O’ The Week: Criticism

Look at the red big dog, no one said, ever/Grammar Rules

Recently I ran into the concept of adjective order. I was flabbergasted, and then instantly felt enormous empathy for people learning English. The rules are devilishly complicated, and are technically known as the Royal Order of Adjectives.  My MIT group includes Francophones and a Mandarin speaker; they tell me other languages have different rules about adjective order.

Turns out, according to science, the rules are not as dissimilar as they seem according to Investigating Cross-Linguistic Adjective Ordering Tendencies with a Latent-Variable Model (PDF download), summarized as:

We utilize this novel statistical model to provide strong converging evidence for the existence of universal, cross-linguistic, hierarchical adjective ordering tendencies.

Which put me in mind of all the grammar rules I carry inside my head. When I was 12, Kathy Neville, a neighbor who went on to have a lovely journalism career, told me “Never start a sentence with the word and.” I threw a little party in my head the first time I did that in a professional writing job, sometime in my 30s.

At AP and UPI, in the mid-70s, the joint stylebook forbade using “over” to mean “more than” as in “the project cost over a billion dollars.” Imagine my surprise when I read that usage in a recent New York Times article. Before firing off an angry letter to the editor, I looked at a copy of the Times’ stylebook, which now says the use of “over” for “more than” is acceptable. When did that happen?

Also, according to the wires, only buses are due. Not “due to” but “because of.”

Plus, in 1974-75, I was trained at both wires to relentlessly cut the word “that,” considered a space filler on the order of “like” and “you know” in spoken English.

“Police said he knew that the door was locked.”

“Police said he knew the door was locked,” means exactly the same, but shorter.

I think if you were to search this column in the years since 1975, you would find very few uses of the word “that.” That may will be the case. (this sentence could probably have been rewritten to avoid the use of the word that, but it would be more convoluted). After all, there are some things up with which I will not put.


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