Submitted by nickbrock on April 1, 2008

Big, red bull vs red, big bull

Why is it more appropriate to say the big, red bull was running fast, rather than the red, big bull was running fast?

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As Whitney pointed out, there are clearly categories of descriptors that English speakers reliably and consistently use.

This has nothing to do with alliteration, cadence, or potential alternate definitions of the words in question.

For me, the size/age pattern seems very strong: it's always big red bull, little purple crayon, gigantic forest green whatchamacallit, not the other way around.

Unfortunately, that is still just a description of a pattern, and doesn't do anything to answer Nick's original question: Why we have such categories, how many categories there are, and why the size category goes before the color category, I haven't a clue.

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@Bookserpent and JJM-
I referred to it as a "common ordering system" not as a RULE.

By referring to my Theme Error Rules, I was giving some personal historical basis for my opinion. Like I said, we have little formal standardization in English. You seem to take issue with a non-issue.

You still didn't address my question. I'll repeat below:

"I was actually wondering the opposite. I want to know why that isn't the correct answer and why no one here (other than Whitney) seems to acknowledge this common ordering system."

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Source: http://www.fortunecity.com/bally/dur.../gramch2...

Usual Order of Attributive Adjectives

1) certain determiners such as all, both and half
2) determiners including the articles a, and and the;
possessive adjectives e.g. my, his, her, our and their;
demonstrative adjectives e.g. that, these, this, and those; and
certain other determiners such as another, any, each, either,
enough, every, neither, no, some, what and which
3) cardinal numbers e.g. one, two, three; and
certain other determiners such as few, many and several
4) determiners such as fewer, fewest, least, less, more and most
5) general descriptive adjectives, often in the following order:
a) adjectives indicating size e.g. large, long, narrow
b) adjectives indicating weight e.g. heavy, light
c) participles and other adjectives e.g. clever, excited, interesting
d) adjectives indicating temperature e.g. cold, hot, warm
e) adjectives indicating humidity e.g. dry, damp, wet
f) adjectives indicating age e.g. new, six-month-old, young
g) adjectives indicating shape e.g. barrel-shaped, round, square
6) adjectives indicating color e.g. blue, grey, white
7) adjectives indicating materials e.g. cloth, leather, metal
8) proper adjectives e.g. American, Victorian
9) defining adjectives, usually indicating purpose, method of operation, location,
time or categories of people

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I think I like UIPs take on this.
A "blue little truck" sounds as if the truck is sad, whereas in a 'little blue truck" the emphasis is on its size.

I don't entirely agree with:
"The problem here exists at an aesthetic and stylistic level above grammar: 'red big bull' just doesn't sound good. It's the faulty cadence and alliteration caused by two successive words which start with 'b'. Putting 'red' between them improves the melodic effect." But an argument could definately be made in certain instances - this one included.

There's more going on than that - I believe there is some kind of rule governing this.

It's seems to me there's at least some convention as to how to order adjectives, and yet we also have the ability to put emphasis on at least one of the adjectives by placing it first or in a certain position.

I found this website:
http://www-users.cs.york.ac.uk/~susan/cyc/a/adj...
with the following rules:

Opinion or judgment -- beautiful, ugly, easy, fast, interesting
Size -- small, tall, short, big
Age -- young, old, new, historic, ancient
Shape -- round, square, rectangular
Color -- red, black, green, purple
Nationality -- French, Asian, American, Canadian, Japanese
Material -- wooden, metallic, plastic, glass, paper
Purpose or Qualifier -- foldout sofa, fishing boat, racing car

So: the "beautiful long curved old red Italian steel racing car"

Anyone agree with that? I'm not sure I would call it a staedfast "rule", but there's definately something more going on than cadence and alliteration...

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First of all, the phrase is sort of read backwards, in that the bullness comes first (after all, everything else modifies it, so it has to come before everything else), then the redness, then the bigness. That is, first you have a bull, then it's red, then it's big. When you first introduce "red", it's an adjective, modifying the bull. But then it sort of turns into a noun, in that it is modified by "big". "Big" modifies both the bull and its redness. So which makes more sense: big redness, or red bigness?

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"My college Theme Error Rules say to separate two descriptive adjectives that describe the same noun with a comma."

And we all know something called "Theme Error Rules" must be correct.

After all, they're "college" rules!

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elizabet,

There are no official language rules. There are only usage conventions. Placing "rules" in a reference book doesn't make them gospel.

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@amazed:
You're kidding, right?
I was actually wondering the opposite. I want to know why that isn't the correct answer and why no one here (other than Whitney) seems to acknowledge this common ordering system.

The rest of the comments seem too based on opinion and ignore what little standardization we do have. My college Theme Error Rules say to separate two descriptive adjectives that describe the same noun with a comma.

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I want to know why no one called Whitney on her so-called "rule"....

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I think my opinion is more along the lines of RWF: it seems to me that what comes first is what is the more important qualifier of the noun. Should this bull be raging towards me, I would probably care more that it was big than if it was red. (Though, it would interest me very much to find out how and why the bull became red.) Should red be the more defining attribute of the bull then red would be first. The way I think, however, is that shape and size is more related to the actual item/creature/person and that colour is a little more superlative.

Also - agreement on Subtle Knife's comma preference. Inserting the comma breaks things up and it is much more interesting (and faster to say) to have a "big red bull"

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As far as the word order is concerned, I tend to agree with RWF. Go with the one that best describes what you are trying to say.

Perhaps another discussion completely, is the use of a comma, yes or no?

I prefer "big red bull" over "big, red bull".

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Ooo! You got word-served!

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"If it were true then 'little blue bull' would be unusual (which it's not) and 'blue little bull' would be the norm (which it's not)."

Except "little" shares more alliteration with "blue" and "bull" than "red" does with "big" and "bull."

Also, "blue" and "bull" are more alliterative than "big" and "bull."

That's why both "little blue bull" and "blue little bull" work: they sound harmonic. A country and western lyric or children's song, perhaps?

It doesn't hurt that "blue" has a meaning beyond colour either.

Hogwash yourself.

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That bit about "...It's the faulty cadence and alliteration caused by two successive words which start with 'b'..." is absolute hogwash. If it were true then "little blue bull" would be unusual (which it's not) and "blue little bull" would be the norm (which it's not).

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a red, big bull may give the impression that the bull is either irate or of a socialistic persuasion.

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Another way to think about the optimal ordering of adjectives is to consider which one is fundamental. That is, are you describing a red bull (it is a big one) or a big bull (it happens to be a red one)? Using this method, the most fundamental adjective would be placed closest to the noun. As JJM notes, this is not a matter of grammar. Rather, it is a matter of communicating as much information as possible as concisely and plainly as possible.

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This really has nothing to do with grammar per se. Both "big red bull" and "red big bull" are grammatically sound.

The problem here exists at an aesthetic and stylistic level above grammar: "red big bull" just doesn't sound good. It's the faulty cadence and alliteration caused by two successive words which start with "b."

Putting "red" between them improves the melodic effect.

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One of the wonderful things about language is that there aren't any official usage rules. There are conventions that are set by different organizations, but these vary from one discourse community to the next. Trying to find an official rule for stylistic concerns might very well result in a linguistic fit.

In reference to your question on big, red, bulls...which one sounds best to you? Convention dictates that it be big, then red, but if red and big sounds best to you, run with it. You may get some criticism for sounding a bit like Yoda, however. Or, I could say: However, you may get some criticism for sounding a bit like Yoda.

I will now probably receive some criticism for my own usage. People will debate whether I should use a comma after the last item in a list. Some will spout off about my using a conjunction to start a sentence. I have probably ended a sentence with a preposition somewhere along the way. For as many manuals of convention and style that can be quoted, probably just as many arguing the other side of the issue can be found.

The bottom line is that language, both convention and usage is a wonderful, fluid, ever-changing thing. Adhere to the conventions within your discourse community for a sense of propriety. If you don't like them, find a new community.

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You're supposed to use the rule "size - age - shape - color - nationality - material"

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