It was a Stormy and Dark Night…

Sounds strange, doesn’t it, that title? Of course, it should be It was a Dark and Stormy night… But why? The information is the exact same in both, so why does our brain insist that dark has to come before stormy? First of all, I want you to look at something near you. Anything at all. Now, describe it out loud in one sentence, using as many adjectives as you can. Don’t overthink it.

You might have come up with something like me: a small, black, analogue watch, or a thin black Toshiba laptop, or a tall, clear glass. Now try changing the order of the adjectives you chose. It sounds wrong, doesn’t it. And that’s because there’s a rule that all native-speakers follow without thinking about it, or even knowing about it at all. That rule determines the order of types of adjectives we use. The correct order is as follows: opinion-size-age-shape-colour-origin-material-purpose. So I can say I have a big old blue Japanese car. But a Japanese blue old big car sounds ridiculous. Apparently, people have been talking a lot about this online in the last few days, after a tweet drew people’s attention to the rule. It’s no wonder that people are amazed. It can be quite shocking to discover such an incredibly specific language rule that one has been unconsciously following all one’s life. We think we have complete control over the words we choose, so it might even be disturbing to think that we’ve been limiting ourselves in this way without our knowledge.

What’s the logic behind the order. I think it’s do with a combination of how apparent the characteristic the adjective describes is, and how fundamental we consider that characteristic to be. For example, adjectives of appearance such as size, shape, and colour appear earlier in the order. Adjectives of origin and material come last, and closest to the noun they describe, because we consider those characteristics as fundamental, innate, and they’re usually not immediately evident, at least not visually. And opinion adjectives come first of all because they’re coming from us. We’re projecting these characteristics onto the object, rather than them being intrinsic in the object, so we keep those as far away from the noun as possible. Well, that’s my theory about it anyway.

In practical terms, this is also something that’s difficult to teach to students. We never have to think about such things in our native language, and it’s hard to transition to having to think about it and the logic behind it. All one can really do is demonstrate the order to students, do a few short exercises, and then ask them to think about it from time to time. There’s no simple trick to help them remember it, as it’s something that we pick up unconsciously in our native language.

I’d like to finish by apologising for the fact that for the next few hours you’ll be describing everything you see in as much detail as possible, and second-guessing the order of the adjectives.

20 thoughts on “It was a Stormy and Dark Night…

    • He does actually, though I get the feeling when they wrote the script they made sure to make him somewhat intelligible, so he usually talks in groups of two or three connected words in the right order, just with those little groups of words then moving around. Otherwise, very irritating to listen to, he would have been!

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  1. This tickles me. I immediately thought “perhaps this is one of the reasons that people have difficulty learning English”. I then started thinking in Spanish as to how you would correctly describe something, and I realized that other than placing the adjectives AFTER the verb, the same rules apply: It was a dark and stormy night = Era una noche oscura y tormentosa (it was a night dark and stormy). Ha!

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