Questions about attributive adjective ordering

Some time ago, my mother showed me a brochure advertising Cavalia’s Odysseo, an acrobatic act arriving in Toronto that has garnered some truly spectacular reviews.  Whilst things like this aren’t typically interesting to me, nearly all forms of text are, so I read some fragments.  It was then that I stumbled upon something odd.

The back of the brochure, as published by the show, describes Odysseo as occurring under a “white big top”.

Some text on the inside of the brochure, however, has the show taking place under a “big white top”.

Many would note that, because the main tent used by a circus to house its audience is traditionally termed a “big top”, the former author is correct, and this particular difference in adjective ordering is not worth much consideration.

Other questions concerning describing words and the way we intuitively perceive them are significantly more interesting, however.  Adjectives are generally fascinating components of language in many senses: they work to add layers of meaning to objects, and information about the way we process them is therefore useful to understanding innate higher-level observational and analytical skills.

Certainly, there is a prescribed order in which attributive adjectives are meant to appear in the English noun phrase: quantity first, then quality or opinion, size, age, shape, color, proper adjective (e.g., a nationality or a material), and finally, purpose or modifier.  But I, for one, was not taught this in elementary school; very infrequently have I encountered a Canadian student that did chance upon this information early on in life.  And yet, somehow, one doesn’t hear small children terming Clifford the “red, big dog”.

What is responsible for our seemingly innate understanding of the order in which adjectives should appear?   Do we simply retrieve ordering information from varied forms of media and our environments so extremely early in life that our understanding appears intuitive?  Or is this something internal?  It’s also interesting to note that, in certain languages, ordering is far less rigidly defined.  On a different note entirely, what is the origin of the distinction between postpositive adjectives and those that precede nouns?

I discussed my first few thoughts with Cyril early one morning, and as always, we’ve decided to begin by seizing a data set, tossing anything irrelevant via a naive phrase marking algorithm, and thereby gaining access to a large number of adjective sequences that we can further analyze.  Eventually, I hope to use MEG and MRI to examine how differing orders are neurophysiologically received in English-first-language subjects, and what kind of brain pattern activations result when a subject is faced with an incorrect order.

Now to find a plaintext, useful, large data set!  (Didn’t that sound dreadful?)

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5 Responses to Questions about attributive adjective ordering

  1. quincy says:

    I feel that it’s outside-in. First we see an object’s silhouette, than the largest colour, and then modifiers…

    So a big, round, white, (aloof/old) Canadian man.

    I seem to disagree a bit with the prescribed order. Where did you find it?

    • Jabb3rW0ck says:

      Well actually going with outside-in, I’d say
      big round old white
      And here’s where I’d say it’s not internal, because part of the reasoning for this is that the phrasing is based on terms such as “that big ol’ thing”, resulting in the silhouette, then markings.

      But this would be interesting.

      • Sophia says:

        I think it’s something worth exploring; perhaps we could try to see if attempts at English ordering differ with one’s first language.

    • Sophia says:

      Hi Quincy! I actually stumbled upon this a long time ago in a Czech book detailing English grammar, haha. I no longer have it, but I recall the order; I’ve since seen it in many other locations. An example would be, which is typically quite trustworthy where BrE is concerned.

      If I understand you correctly, then your order is either a) size, shape, color, opinion, age, or b) size, shape, origin (nationality), opinion, age. Whilst “shape” in some popular variants inserts itself into “opinion”, “age” almost invariably precedes almost everything else, often directly following “size” and occupying a third or fourth place. “Opinion”, too, as in the form of “aloof”, often comes either first or second.

      Certainly, not all sources follow precisely the order I gave, but most follow it to the general extent that I’ve elaborated upon above. A few more, for your perusal:

      It’s important to note that you’re by no means “wrong”. I really don’t think one can say that such a thing as an incorrect order exists. I’m going to hypothesize that how you choose to prioritize adjectives will vary with your first language, and, more broadly, with whether you’ve been taught British or American English.

  2. I believe that, while ordinary adjective attributions might follow a standardization, it seems intuitive that ordering of adjectives follows an approach regarding the contentiousness of their respective intentionalities. So, when we go about calling Clifford a “big, red dog”, it is a matter of the emphasis we mean to place on his being “big”. You might consider it against an alternate listing, in which we might say that Clifford is a “red dog, oh, and he is also big” — it’s an emphasis attribution in ordering adjectives (were there many large dogs running amok, then we would be inclined to distinguish Clifford by saying that he is a “red, big dog”). In doing so, we work to distinguish the object by its more stringent features, so as to individuate as promptly as possible. Similarly, definitions tend to be elucidated such that the word being defined appears first.

    In this regard, it seems that our decision to order adjectives involves an appeal to property relevance, particularly in order to distinguish. You may find parallels here between the search paradigms we use in visual processing, and other cognitive processes like retrospective attenuation to (or intrinsic memory processing of) initially unattended stimuli: there is a tendency toward top-down processing (read: meaning based) in such paradigms of distinction and attenuation, which may also be relevant here (as there could be an analogue made to decision theory in conscious/subconscious attribution of adjectives).

    I’m avoiding allusion to the tents, as there could certainly be precedent in distinguishing between multiple white big-tops (“the larger white big top” or “the big white big top” both seem too wordy, and would be frowned upon by White and Strunk Jr.), but it could also be a preferential attribution, or an error on part of an unfamiliar party.

    I think this intuition is pervasive; though I would have to take the time to analyze text to verify this.

    If you want a good amount of language content through the eras and persons, for your analysis, you may want to try and contact James Pennebaker (author of The Secret Life of Pronouns), who is in possession of an ever-growing database and a strong programming for parsing and analyzing sentences. He may be more than sympathetic.


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