Tag Archives: language

Adjective Order in English

Adjectives in English follow a certain order. This is why “That’s a beautiful white house” sounds correct, but “That’s a white beautiful house” does not.

The order of adjectives begins with opinions: “beautiful”, “nice”, “great”, etc.

It’s a great car.

After opinions comes size: “big”, “small”, “long”, etc.

It’s a great small car.

It’s a small great car.

After opinions and size comes age: “new”, “old”, “ancient”, etc.

It’s a great small old car.

It’s an old great small car.

(Apologies for how clunky the sentences get beyond here. In English you don’t normally describe objects with quite so many objectives!)

After opinions, size and age comes shape: “rectangular”, “circular”, “boxy”, etc.

It’s a great small old curvy car.

It’s a curvy great small old car.

After opinions, size, age and shape comes colour: “red”, “blue”, “green”, etc.

It’s a great small old curvy blue car.

It’s a blue great small old curvy car.

After opinions, size, age and shape come materials: “leather”, “brick”, “wood”, etc.

It’s a great small old curvy blue metal car.

It’s a metal great small old curvy blue car.

After opinions, size, age, shape and material comes (geographical) origin: “British”, “Spanish”, “Roman”, etc.

It’s a great small old curvy blue metal British car.

It’s a British great small old curvy blue metal car.

Finally, after opinions, size, age, shape, material and origin comes purpose:

It’s a great small old curvy blue metal British racing car.

It’s a racing great small old curvy blue metal British car.

Any combination that doesn’t have the adjectives in the correct order ends up looking weird.

It’s a fantastic big new red American house.

It’s a fantastic American big new red house.

It’s a big new American red fantastic house.

It’s a red fantastic American big new house.

It’s an American new red big fantastic house.

Not all languages use an order for adjectives. For example, in Polish it doesn’t matter what order the adjectives are in: “What a wonderful small blue bag!” and “What a blue small wonderful bag!” would sound just as “correct” as each other.

Quotation Marks and Guillemets

In many languages, quotation marks are used to indicate that the source of a piece of text is not the author, but that the author is directly quoting someone else.

“The cat sat on the mat,” said the man.

Quotation marks can be double or single, and the nesting of double and single quotation marks is used to indicate when the person being quoted is themselves quoting someone else.

“Can you believe she said ‘The cat sat on the mat’?” asked the man.

In many languages, quotation marks are not used like this. German uses the same marks, but in different positions.

Sagte der Mann: „die Katze saß auf der Matte”.

In many languages, marks called guillemets are used instead.

« Le chat était assis sur le tapis, » dit l’homme.

In French (except Swiss French) spaces are placed between the marks and the speech, but in most languages that use guillemets (Arabic, Greek, Italian, Portuguese, Russian, etc.) there are no spaces, as with quotation marks. Some languages occasionally use guillemets pointing in the other direction (e.g. Danish):

»Katten sad på måtten,« sagde manden.

In some languages, (e.g. Polish) guillemets are used within quotation marks to indicate a quotation of a quotation, as with nested quotation marks as explained above.

„Czy uwa?asz, ?e powiedzia?a «kot siedzia? na macie»?”.

I’d be interested to hear from any MrReid.org readers on how quotations are indicated in their languages.

Apologies to any native speakers of the languages above. Blame Google Translate.

Subject-Verb-Object

Sentences have three main parts: the subject of the sentence, the object of the sentence, and a verb that links the two together.

In English, sentences follow the SVO (subject-verb-object) order, for example in the sentence “She loves him”, “She” is the subject, “loves” is the verb and “him” is the object. Other languages that follow the SVO order include Chinese, French and Russian, but SVO is not the most common arrangement.

The most common arrangement is SOV (subject-object-verb), which is found in 45% of languages (as opposed to the 42% of languages which use SVO) and in this case, our example sentence becomes “She him loves”. This arrangement is found in Japanese, Korean and Pashto.

The remaining 13% of languages use the other four possible arrangements:

  • VSO (“Loves she him”) is found in 9% of languages, including Arabic, Hebrew and Gaelic. (i.e. it is found in the semitic and celtic languages.
  • VOS (“Loves him she”) is found in 3% of languages, including Malagasy, Tagalog and Fijian.
  • OVS (“Him loves she”) and OSV (“Him she loves”) make up the remaining 1% of languages, with OSV being present in only one known case: Warao, spoken by around 28 000 people in Venezuela, Guyana and Suriname.

Just because a sentence doesn’t follow the SOV arrangement doesn’t mean that it won’t be understandable to English speakers. One of the most famous sentences in the English language “With this ring, I thee wed.” follows the SOV arrangement.

Collision v allision

In maritime terms there is a difference between a collision and an allision.

When two moving objects strike each other, that is a collision.

When a moving object strikes a stationary object, that is an allision.

Star traveller etymology

The term astronaut comes from the two Greek words: ástron (star) and nautes (traveller), making an astronaut a “star traveller”. In Russia astronauts have always been known as cosmonauts, an anglicised version of the Russian word kosmonavt (originally from the Greek kosmos meaning “universe”) and the difference between the two terms used seems to have encouraged other nations.

Officially the Chinese use “astronaut” when writing in English and “cosmonaut” when writing in Russian but the term taikonaut (from the Chinese taikong for “space”) has often been used by non-Chinese media.  The French have used spationaut, from the Latin word for space spatium and some have suggested that the Indian space program should use anthanaut from the Hindi anthariksh, also meaning “space”.