Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Grammatical rules we follow unconsciously

I remember being blown away (as were so many other people) the first time I read about the hidden rule on the order of adjectives that we unconsciously follow in English (e.g. we say "great green dragons" and "six small plastic tables", and not "green great dragons" or "plastic small six tables").
We are never explicitly taught this rule; it is largely intuitive - we use it because it just sounds right.
Other than in a few cases where a particular emphasis is intended or to put across a specific precise idea, multiple adjectives are used in the order: Quantity, Value/Opinion, Size, Temperature, Age, Shape, Colour, Origin, Material, Purpose (you may see slight variations on this list, but the essentials are fixed). Interestingly, the rule applies broadly to most languages, and linguists have argued for decades over just why it exists and what is its basis.
The idea that we follow grammatical rules unconsciously has come as a revelation to many people, me included. And now I read in Mental Floss, that there are other such rules, and that we are in fact constantly following a whole bunch of grammatical rules without even knowing it:
  • "My brother's house" sounds better than "the house of my brother", but, on the other hand, "the door of my house" sounds better than "my house's door". The "animacy hierarchy" theory suggests that there is a hierarchy of humannness, going from human to animal to inanimate, and the higher up this scale a noun is, the worse the "of" construction for a possessive sounds.
  • "Abso-freakin'-lutely" and "im-bloody-portant" sound much better than "ab-freakin'-solutely" and "impor-bloody-tant". There is a hidden rule in how we insert expletives into a word for emphasis, and it turns out to be that it sounds better if the expletive comes just before the syllable that is most stressed.
  • "What did you say that he ate?" sounds better than "what did you mumble that he ate?" or "what did you describe that he ate?" This is because "ate" is one of a class of verbs called bridge verbs, while "mumble" and "describe" are not.
  • "I cheered up my friend" sounds fine, but "I cheered up her" does not. This difference, caused by the simple substitution of a pronoun for a noun, occurs because "cheer up" (like "call off", "go over ", "put down", and many others) is what is called a phrasal verb, a verb made up of multiple words that has a different meaning than a simple combination of the words might suggest. However, some of these phrasal verbs are separable by a noun and some are not: you can say "don't pick on my sister" but not "don't pick my sister on", whereas either "I cheered up my friend" or "I cheered my friend up" are acceptable. Even worse, some phrasal verbs that are separable by a noun are not separable by a pronoun, "cheer up" being an example of such a case.
Maybe we should take some comfort from the fact that there ARE in fact some rules for these things, and that they are not just as random a they appear. But what a nightmare! It makes me so glad I never had to learn English as a second language.

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