Rules No One Teaches but Everyone Learns

By Walker, Ruth | The Christian Science Monitor, May 18, 2007 | Go to article overview

Rules No One Teaches but Everyone Learns


Walker, Ruth, The Christian Science Monitor


Time, manner, place. Time, manner, place. That was my mnemonic when, as a high school student, I struggled to learn the rules for ordering German adverbs. "I love in summer with you down the Rhine to sail." The time phrase ("in summer") is followed by indicators of manner ("with you") and place ("down the Rhine").

It seemed utterly wrong. The only way through seemed to be to memorize the rules. Hmph! We don't have rules like this in English - or do we?

Hmm. Does the fact that this sounds so wrong in English suggest perhaps that there are rules there, too - just different from those of German?

In the years since, I've realized that this hunch was right. English and, I assume, other languages, are full of rules that no one teaches - not to native speakers anyway - but that everyone still learns.

Take a sentence like this: "In the park today, we saw six gorgeous immaculately restored antique flame-red Italian racing cars." That's quite a string of adjectives, but they're placed in order according to a hierarchy that leaves "time, manner, place" in the dust.

This whole question was the focus of the "tip of the week" from the newsletter Copy Editor a few weeks ago. A reader had written in: "I deal with a lot of non-native English speakers, and a question frequently arises as to what order to use for a string of adjectives or adverbs. We (editors) know to say '21 large green tables' but why not 'green large 21 tables'? or '21 green large tables'? Is there a rule for this?" Wendalyn Nichols, editor of Copy Editor, responded, "There is indeed a standard order for adjectives, and you'll find it described in dictionaries and textbooks for learners of English as a second language."

Ms. Nichols reproduced a chart showing a hierarchy of modifiers: determiner, quality, size, age, color, origin, material. She gives some examples: a colorful new silk scarf, that silver Japanese car. …

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