Wednesday 3 May 2017

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.

Ugly or little? Which one comes first?
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.

© 2017

Next Post: “Thoughts in Progress”, to be published on Saturday 6th May at 6pm (GMT)


  1. As one trying to learn Spanish, I'm struggling with word order - sometimes the subject comes after the verb (as a clarifier) and sometimes before. And some adjectives go before the noun and some after. It takes persistence - it will be years before I'm as comfortable as you are with English!

  2. Yes you speak good english!!nice to hear your voice..There is many different ways to speak spanish ...Depends on what village you come from..since Iam a ones understands me..Therefor I speak Catelan....But my son has taken the interest in spanish he even speaks better then this year we travel to Spain..up to the north country..Bacue land and Pyrenees
    I got three languages norwegian, canadian and spanish.. I think in all three of them.. :))))Nice post Cuban

    Greetings Anita

  3. I usually get them out in the right order as I read over and see if they make sense.

  4. Your English is excellent! I am fluent in French. :)

  5. Cuando no es nuestra lengua natal siempre hay frases que uno tiene tendencia a traducirlas de su propia lengua hasta que uno las adopta por haberlas oido muchas veces y las considera que son las correctas.
    Un abrazo.

  6. Tricky one! While English is not my first language, it is the one I have been using for most of my life now. But I speak Irish English which differs a lot from British English.

    I remember a similar 'test' at some stage when I was a studying for my translation degree and we agreed at the time that these two sentences refer to two different fellows, based on the order od adjectives you mention.

    When I refer to someone as 'little' it can also be a derogatory (opinion) adjective, especially when spoken dismissively. It serves to stress the 'ugly'. He is after all only little, nothing worth your while etc.
    Whereas 'ugly' can be a lot more than the opposite of 'pretty'.

    Anyway, this was a really stimulating post. Thanks!!

  7. English can be a tricky language. My father, a native German speaker, said that the 'ridiculous rules" always escaped him when he was tired...

  8. I've heard that English is a difficult language to learn because there are so many exceptions to the rules. I admire anyone who speaks more than one language.

  9. Yes, an ear beats knowing rules :)

  10. I agree with you for the most part. However there are exceptio0ns to the rules and that is what makes the English language so confusing at times. For instance if you were to say in a derisive way, "That is an ugly man," I might wish to expand on the insult. I could say, "Not only that he is a LITTLE ugly man." I pointed out that not only is he ugly but that he is little also. What do you think?

  11. My understanding in French and Italian (I don't speak Spanish) is that whether adjectives come before or after the noun is determined by similar logic to which order we would use adjectives in English. Being not yet fluent in either of those languages I generally default to all adjectives coming after the noun.

  12. languages isn´t easy nowadays. :(

  13. I love the flow of words and if one is out of place it jars my mind. That is why a writer should read his work aloud before laying it before a publisher. A split infinitive really irritates.

  14. It's true that for native speakers, a feel for rules is largely instinctive. I would have said "ugly little fellow" without knowing why! (Obviously this isn't always true, though. I imagine if I'd grown up around parents with bad grammar I would have picked up THEIR rules, or lack thereof, rather than proper English rules!)

  15. Newspaper (my background) style books often are at odds with each other, not to mention with English text books, in terms of grammar and punctuation, etc. .... so, in effect, whatever a writer chooses to do makes him incorrect to someone's way of thinking. As a compromise, I created my own stylebook, which makes everyone incorrect -- other than myself, of course. Teasing ....

    Actually, I try to write the way I talk and let the cards fall where they may ....

  16. Hi Mario - yes we do feel the words somehow ... we do know that the sentence, or phrase is probably better this way than that - but English is a wonderful language ... and thank goodness I'm an English speaker - and I admire others who move between languages so easily. Lovely post - cheers Hilary

  17. Oh no, I thought both sentences are correct but mean different things! :) (Fortunately there's also Sabine's interesting comment.) To my not-native ears, "ugly little fellow" might be an idiomlike expression that doesn't necessarily mean the person in question is short...
    I have now copied the order of the adjectives - in my journal. :)

  18. It's an exciting moment when one realizes he's actually thinking in a foreign language. I used to be able to do that with French many years ago. (Why, oh why didn't I study Spanish instead??? There are many many Spanish-speaking people in our area, but little to no French speakers.) Believe it or not, the same kind of ah-ha moment happens while learning Morse code.

    One thing that fascinates me about the romance languages is the way gender is assigned to words, and without any apparent rhyme or reason.

  19. I really should use my Spanish more...I spoke it, read it, thought in it, and now, it is slowly disappearing...

    Greetings from La Florida



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