A Grammar Rule We Know But Not Taught

The English Language is Both Fickle and Structured

by Kelly R. Smith

Word structure in the English language
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The English language is quirky. The rules are generally spelled out but they don’t always apply. Take that “i before e” thing, for example. The grammar rules we learned in school, elementary or college, are fairly pliable but that does not give us license to flunk a test, did it? Then there’s the word order grammar rule we know and use every day but were not taught in school.

At least that’s true if your first language is English. If your native language is something else and you are learning English, this rule is in your text book and you will be drilled on it. I’m not sure about how they handle the Oxford comma debate. I’m firmly for it but I know many writers who are not. So, what is the mysterious rule this article is concerned with?

It’s All About Revering the Noun

The noun is quite the thing, isn’t it? All the other elements, the adjectives in particular, exist to serve it. Their structure and order are critical or else we risk sounding like goofballs. Mark Forsyth, author of The Elements of Eloquence: How to Turn the Perfect English Phrase says that adjectives, “absolutely have to be in this order: opinion-size-age-shape-colour-origin-material-purpose Noun. So you can have a lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife. But if you mess with that order in the slightest you’ll sound like a maniac.”

Native English speakers understand the rule intuitively but not so others. For example, in English I might say, “The big house,” but in Spanish, “La casa grande.” In English I would say, “There are many rooms here.” In Irish Gaelic I would say, “Tá seomraí go leor anseó.” It certainly seems that English is the odd man out here.

Here is an example of a textbook page for English learners from the book English Grammar in Use:

From the book English Grammar in Use

How Does English Rank in Languages Difficult to Learn?

According to Language Next, it doesn’t make list. None are easy or trivial, it’s true, but, as they put it, “The language difficulty depends on multiple factors — Native or related Languages, methodology, convolution, interest, and available resources. Some are difficult languages to acquire, whereas many are relatively straightforward. I’ve only considered major world languages here, which means no less taught languages.”1 Here is their list:

  1. Mandarin Chinese (no surprise there.)
  2. Korean (both North and South, we can assume)
  3. Japanese (I can attest to that; I tried it when I was stationed on Okinawa)
  4. Russian
  5. Arabic
  6. Turkish
  7. Persian (Farsi, Dari, Tajik)

These did not make the list but got honorable mention: Cantonese, Croatian, Czech, Finnish, Greek, Hebrew, Hungarian, Icelandic, Mongolian, Polish, Slovenian, Ukrainian, Vietnamese, and Thai.

Our cognitive abilities don’t come into play when we learn or use a new language but that doesn’t make it any less difficult. The word order grammar rule can be perplexing, but luckily, it’s intuitive for native English speakers.

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  1. Vikash Gupta, Language Next, 7 Most Difficult Languages to Learn in the World, https://www.languagenext.com/blog/difficult-languages/

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About the Author:

Photo of Kelly R. SmithKelly R. Smith is an Air Force veteran and was a commercial carpenter for 20 years before returning to night school at the University of Houston where he earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Computer Science. After working at NASA for a few years, he went on to develop software for the transportation, financial, and energy-trading industries. He has been writing, in one capacity or another, since he could hold a pencil. As a freelance writer now, he specializes in producing articles and blog content for a variety of clients. His personal blog is at I Can Fix Up My Home Blog where he muses on many different topics.

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