Sunday, January 14, 2018

Word Order, Commas, People

A while back, Jason Kottke had a post called the adjective word order we all follow without realizing it. He pointed out that native English speakers and writers automatically put things into this order: opinion-size-age-shape-color-origin-material-purpose Noun.

His source (The Elements of Eloquence by Mark Forsyth) gives this example: "lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife," and notes, "...if you mess with that word order in the slightest you’ll sound like a maniac."

The Cambridge Dictionary's version of the word-order list varies just a bit: opinion, size, physical quality, shape, age, colour, origin, material, type, purpose Noun.

Then there's the thing about whether or not commas are needed between each of those adjectives or not. Generally they are, though there are exceptions when it's the final adjective. Sometimes that final adjective is what's called a cumulative modifier and in a sense becomes part of the noun. This particularly comes into play when describing plants. For instance, which reads better?

  • Giant, ragged, pink flowers OR giant, ragged pink flowers
  • Blowsy, perfumed, 2” blooms OR blowsy, perfumed 2” blooms
All of this came to mind yesterday when I was listening to NPR's Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me while out and about. One of the questions posed to the panelists involved the phrase "black women's maternity pants."

I thought to myself, well that's an awfully particular thing — do they really make maternity pants for black women specifically?

The host, Peter Sagal, immediately caught the error and pointed out that they were talking about "women's black maternity pants." (Or he could, maybe, have said they meant "black, women's maternity pants," but that would require saying "comma" out loud to make it clear on the radio.)

But if you switch the order to "women's black maternity pants," it sounds out of order, given the rules above (though neither possession nor gender are not included in the lists, I note, but it sounds weird, doesn't it?).

In this specific example, there's a simpler solution: just remove the word "women's" since it's maternity pants we're talking about, right? And everyone knows who needs maternity pants. So just: black maternity pants.

But the question could still arise for other items, such as black women's shoes. Women's black shoes. Black, women's shoes. The last choice is the best one, I guess, but it's only completely clear in print, not when spoken. (And imagine the adjacent concept, white women's shoes.)

The larger problem all of this reveals is that applying colors to people was not a good idea. Who started that, anyway, white people?

1 comment:

Michael Leddy said...

“Giant, ragged pink flowers”: no comma after “ragged” seems right to me. Like “tattered wool coat.” Not tattered and wool but a wool coat, a tattered one.

I had your thought about the maternity pants: just delete women’s. As for shoes, I think “women’s black shoes” makes sense to avoid the miscue. I don’t think “black, women’s shoes” works (the shoes aren’t black and women’s).

If shopping for shoes, maybe “women’s shoes in black”?

Isn’t a wonder that anyone ever learns this language?