The Weird Grammar Rule We All Obey Without Knowing It
Why you can’t let the beautiful, stupid, big cat in no matter how much she meows at you
There’s a reason you can’t get a show, American, furry, stripey, round, old, big, stupid cat, and it’s not just because she’ll probably pee in your shoes. The reason (and I should emphasize that it’s not a rule, but more like a language habit) has something to do with what’s called Order Force, which sounds like a directive General Hux might give on Starkiller Base and is only slightly less cool to think about: When we stack adjectives together in English, we tend to do it unconsciously in something like the order that matches number, opinion, size, physical quality, shape, age, color, origin, material, type, purpose. So your five stupid, big, round, old, stripey, furry, American show cats will feel much more at home even if some of them destroy the furniture.
There appears to be some slight disagreement about the specifics of this order, as the above list (which comes from the Cambridge Dictionary) isn’t precisely the same as the list by language-writer Mark Forsyth that occasionally goes viral, but if you test it yourself, you’ll realize that there’s something almost indefinably wrong with concepts like Clifford, the Red, Big Dog; My Greek, Fat, Big Wedding; Angry 12 Men; Riding Little Red Hood; The Budapest Grand Hotel; The Little Brave Toaster; and The Red Thin Line; but The Ugly, The Bad, and The Good is (inferior but) broadly fine — because the former group break the hierarchy in one way or another, while the latter example is just a list of three opinions about Clint Eastwood and his friends.
As Forsyth has observed, there are plenty of exceptions to this “rule.” The most frequently cited example is “Big Bad Wolf,” which goes size, opinion Noun instead of the other way around. Forsyth (and others) argue that this is because of another batshit-crazy-but-once-you-think-about-it-deeply-intuitive rule called ablaut reduplication, which decrees that when we make repetitive sounds, we tend to put i-sounds before a-sounds or o-sounds, hence: chit-chat, mishmash, tip-top…