Monday, September 05, 2016

The Grammatical Rule that Isn't


A lot of my friends and acquaintances have been Facebook-sharing the following excerpt from a book by Mark Forsyth, The Elements of Eloquence:

Forsyth gives a good general rule for English, but like most grammatical rules, it's easy to find exceptions. For example, the American poet Benjamin Ivry wrote, in his poem "Ici Mourut Racine", of a "square little cottage".

So a challenge to readers: come up with the best natural-sounding exception to Forsyth's rule of English. You get bonus points if you violate Forsyth's order in multiple ways, and even more bonus points if you can find it in the published work of a native English-speaking author. No prizes for citing non-native speakers clearly lacking English skills.

10 comments:

Laurence A. Moran said...

There are two types of great dragons; green great dragons and brown great dragons.

In order to kill a green great dragon you need a special old French silver lovely little rectangular whittling knife.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Larry, have you been reading my Facebook posts?

Jeffrey Shallit said...

"Big ugly fish" versus "ugly little liar" (found with google autocomplete).

Paul C. Anagnostopoulos said...

Since time immemorial, the old rotund little man* stored the wooden silver spoon in his original great chest.

~~ Paul

* He was a specific attorney general.

Pseudonym said...

The one I came up with was "greasy overpriced junk food". I came up with this while trying to parse the phrase "great grey-green greasy Limpopo River".

Pseudonym said...

By the way, when coming up with examples, be careful of compound nouns. To use an example from this thread, it could be argued that "great dragon" is a compound noun, like "bald eagle" or "superb lyrebird". The word "great" is part of the noun, so doesn't count as an adjective for this purpose.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Pseudo: I'm not a linguist, but my understanding is that even in a compound noun like "bald eagle", the "bald" still functions as an adjective. As I understand it, a compound noun can be formed from two nouns, or an adjective and noun, and so forth.

Glenn Branch said...

"I knew her well: a little lovely graceful creature, with coquettish school-girl ways, which displayed themselves even at church, though her black browed and swarthy aunt sat beside her in the rector's pew." -- Charles Dickens, Mrs. Lirriper's Legacy (1864).

Glenn Branch said...

"But, the old little fishing and smuggling town remains, and is so tempting a place for the latter purpose, that I think of going out some night next week, in a fur cap and a pair of petticoat trousers, and running an empty tub, as a kind of archaeological pursuit." -- Charles Dickens, Out of Town (1859).

Pseudonym said...

The key point about compound nouns is that the "adjective" part of the noun is fixed; you can't move it. So it doesn't matter to the analysis.

BTW, Mark Libermann (who is a linguist) came up with the best example of all: "big bad wolf".