Why adjectives have set the internet ablaze

From Jesse Mulligan, 1–4pm, 3:10 pm on 4 October 2016

Why are we the land of the long white cloud, rather than the white long cloud?

Recently, the culture editor of the BBC sent out a tweet about a book called The Elements of Eloquence: How to Turn the Perfect English Phrase by Mark Forsyth, and the topic of the order of adjectives went wild on the internet. 

In his book, Forsyth reminds us of a rule in English we didn't know we knew. Adjectives need to be in a certain order to make sense.

"I just pointed out that adjectives have to go in one order- opinion, size, age, shape, colour, origin, material, purpose, noun.

"So you can have a lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife. But if you mess with that word order in the slightest you'll sound like a maniac."

Master this, and other rhetorical tools in the book, and you can write like Shakespeare or Katy Perry, he says.

Mark Forsyth

Mark Forsyth Photo: YoiuTube

“No one knows why it sounds weird [out of order] or why English has formed this very particular line of adjectives, but we all use that rule, we all know that rule, but we just don’t know that we know that rule.”

These rules of rhetoric were second nature to the great phrase-makers. Shakespeare knew them well, Forsyth says.

“If you think genius is some kind of magical thing, lightning that hits you from heaven, it’s not that. Shakespeare was a guy who learned all the skills, the rules, the formulas and the figures of rhetoric and then he deployed them better than anyone else has ever deployed them."