Thursday, April 11, 2024

Dear O'Abby: Does the order of words really matter?

 Dear O'Abby,

I just got some feedback from my critique partner that some of my sentences don't read right in terms of the word order.  Is this really a thing?  Is it really wrong to say someone is "blonde, lithe and tall" instead of "tall, lithe and blonde"?  I've never come across that rule before and I can't see how it makes a difference.

Is this really a thing?



Dear Disorderly,

It does matter.  English is weird and has very specific rules, but in most languages you'll find the order words come in does matter.  Where it is more flexible is in languages like Latin where the meaning is indicated by the case or declension, not by the order of words in the sentence.

Most languages, English included, follow the Subject-Verb-Object pattern eg. John ate the cake.  But of course sometimes you need to express things more complex than that.

Given the example you gave, I suspect you're talking mainly about adjectives and the order in which they are used.  And yes, there is a hierarchy, which is probably what your critique partner was referencing when they mentioned your sentences feeling off.  People who speak English natively absorb these rules as they are learning to speak - they probably don't even know they are rules; just that it sounds wrong to have "green, jolly giant" as opposed to a "jolly, green giant".

The hierarchy is as follows:

1. Determiner (words like an, my, your, the)
2. Observations (words that describe a feeling about something - lovely, boring, stupid)
3. Size (self explanatory, I hope! Small, large, tiny)
4. Shape (again, speaks for itself, I think - triangular, heart-shaped, square)
5. Age (any word applying to this, not just the actual age of something - old, new, twelve-year-old)
6. Colour (obvious, I hope - pink, green, blonde)
7. Origin ( where something comes from - Mexican, Chinese, British)
8. Material (what the thing is made of - wood, copper, tweed)
9. Qualifier/modifier (a word that gives context to a noun)

So, to use all of these in a grammatically correct sentence try:

"My gorgeous, long, tapered, ten-year-old, ivory, Chinese, silk, wedding dress tore on my way up the aisle

If your character is not a native English speaker, then having them use words in the wrong order can show their lack of familiarity with the language, but it should be used sparingly.  And probably primarily in dialogue.

So I hope that helps.  The rules are somewhat arbitrary, I know, but if you read a sentence aloud and notice there is something slightly off about it, it may be because the order of adjectives in not correct.

Maybe next week I'll look at some other word placement issues I see sometimes.  Where you place words is important, the same way where you place punctuation is.

X O'Abby

No comments: