JaniceHeck

Finding hope in a chaotic world…

A is for Adjectives, Anteaters, Armadillos, and Aardvarks

a-to-z-letters-2013

Welcome to the 2013 A to Z Challenge where bloggers write a series of 26 posts during the month of April.
This year our faithful organizers encouraged hope-filled A-Z participants to develop a theme for posts rather than posting on random topics as many of us did last year.
My theme for this year is . . .

Writing PLUS Grammar You Can See.

Through the month of April, I plan to give examples of how a strong knowledge of grammar can help writers produce more effective writing. More effective writing improves communication.

Along the way, I plan to throw in a cat or two. Sorry, they just have a way of sneaking into my blogs.
And now with a *blast of the trumpet* and a *roll on the snare drum*, we begin with . . .

A is for Adjectives, Anteaters, Armadillos, and Aardvarks

Pigs Little Three
Bad Wolf Big
Little Hood Riding Red

Did you grimace when you read these familiar characters?
Take a common phrase and mix up the adjectives, and it sounds like an off-key prima donna singing an aria at the Met. Our ears tell us something just isn’t right.

Parents read nursery rhymes and classic stories to their wee ones over and over and over and over, a trillion times in parent-count, to calm them at bed-time. At the same time, they unwittingly teach their little sponges unspoken rules for how our language works. Diaper-wearing toddlers learn the order of adjectives as they babble away practicing their early communication skills.

three pigs LGBMom reads The Three Little Pigs.
Rule: Adjectives come before nouns. (They can also be in two other places, but that’s for another post.)
Rule: Number adjectives come before size adjectives

Pattern: Adjective, adjective, adjective noun.

Dad reads Little Red Riding Hood.
Rule: size comes before color.

little-red-riding-hood-ladybird-book-first-favourite-tales-gloss-hardback-1999-1553-pChildren learn these rules seemingly by osmosis so teachers never have to teach about correct order of adjectives in school. Adjective order flows naturally in their speaking patterns without ever having to learn the official linguistic rules.

Order of adjectives is generally only a problem for non-native English speakers whose own language may have a different word order.

And yes, there is a prescribed order for adjectives. If you think about it for a bit, you can probably come up with the rules. But I’ll save you some time and give the order to you here:

1. determiners: a, an, the this, that, these, those his, hers, ours, yours several, ten, some
2. judgment (opinion, observation): beautiful, delicious, obnoxious, immature
3. physical description (fact: size, shape, age, color): small, round, ancient, golden
4. origin: Greek, Italian, Chinese, Mexican
5. composition: cotton, silk, metal, wooden
6. other specific qualifier related to the function or purpose noun . . .men’s clothing, children’s shoes
and finally, ta dah, *drum roll*, the NOUN.

Teacher-pleasing elementary students love to write lengthy sentences loaded with adjectives. Let them have their fun.

Giant, bushy-tailed anteaters with long, sticky tongues and elongated snouts vacuum up their mid-day snack of crunchy, tasty, black ants.
giant anteater
Toothless, armor-plated, Texan and South American armadillos roam around in the pitch-black, moon-less nights but roll up into balls when threatened by ravenous predators.
armadillow
That chunky African aardvark with the round, stubby, pig-like snout, catches ants with its long, inelegant sticky tongue.
aardvark

Bierce cover largeFor additional thoughts on order of adjectives, read all about “Frozen Yogurt with Adjectives on Top” by Jan Freeman, author of Ambrose Bierce’s Write It Right: The Celebrated Cynic’s Language Peeves Deciphered, Appraised, and Annotated for 21st-Century Readers. http://throwgrammarfromthetrain.blogspot.com/2012/08/frozen-yogurt-with-adjectives-on-top.html

So what? Who cares? Why do writers have to think about order of adjectives?
Writing instructors say, “Show, don’t tell,” encouraging writers to give more detail in their writing, but writers need to use adjectives more selectively than those eager-beaver elementary students.

Zinsser, On Writing WellWilliam Zinsser, author of On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction, says this about adjectives:

Most writers sow adjectives almost unconsciously into the soil of their prose to make it more lush and pretty, and the sentences become longer and longer as they fill up wih stately elms and frisky kittens and hard-bitten detectives and sleepy lagoons. This is adjective-by-habit — a habit you should get rid of.

Goals for Using Adjectives in Writing
1. Use adjectives selectively. Piles of adjectives bore your readers. They skip over them to get to the action in your story or to the gist of your article. Don’t be like those adjective-abusing, but fun-loving elementary students.  Use fresh, original, surprising adjectives in your writing.
2. Get rid of common adjectives (nice, pretty, lovely, romantic, exciting). They have no place in your writing because they show nothing. Instead practice writing original similes and metaphors. Look for posts on S and M, oops, I mean similes and metaphors in the future. In the meantime, Catherine Johnson posts metaphors and metaphor-generating pictures on “Metaphor Mondays.” Look there for fresh ideas.

The Last Meow

And now a word from Grumpy Cat. Too bad the meme writer didn’t go to school on the day the teacher taught about apostrophesGumpry Cay-meme-wrong apostrophes and contractions. Oh well, there’s  always room for another blog post on the proper use of these elementary, confounding constructions.

Oh great. Now the Three Little Kittens are fussing because I haven’t given them any airtime. Sometimes you just can’t win.

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8 thoughts on “A is for Adjectives, Anteaters, Armadillos, and Aardvarks

  1. I’ve never thought about this, but you’re right – there is an order to adjectives. Osmosis must work!

  2. Sometimes I can get grammar without fail, but occasionally I fall into the subtle traps!

    • Grammar can be tricky. One strategy I use is to read my work out loud. Often I can tell when something sounds funny that I have a grammar problem. I also like to set my writing aside for a few hours or days to cool off. When I go back to it, the problems jump out and I wonder how I missed them earlier.
      Keep on writing.

  3. Thank you for visiting and following my blog. I’m glad you did, so I could follow you back and find the truly inspiring articles you wrote.

    I fondly remember the times when my mother read fairy tales to me, until I fell into sweet slumber. To this day I still love the stories of the brothers Grimm and especially the more lighter, yet morale teaching tales of Hans Christian Anderson.

    Sadly, many children nowadays are deprived of this bonding time with a parent. Not only do they miss out on the fun, but the effortless time of learning language and morale is lost.
    Instead, they are being subjected to the rudimentary, and many times profane, language used in popular music.

    What is never learned, cannot be taught. So the next generation will have an even harder time of understanding and learning what should already be ingrained by the time school starts.

    And the cycle perpetuates itself.

  4. Pingback: L is for List of A to Z Challenge Posts, 2013, by Janice Heck | JaniceHeck

  5. Pingback: Dear Readers: On Flying Deeper into the Blogosphere | JaniceHeck

  6. Pingback: What? Another Blog on Writing? | Janice Heck Writes

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