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Marissa Lingen

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Adjective order and speculative writing [Aug. 19th, 2014|05:37 pm]
Marissa Lingen
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I found this article about adjective order in English very interesting. It’s a topic that we mostly grasp intuitively–no teacher ever told me that saying “iron big skillet” was wrong because material is the type of adjective that belongs closest to the word and size goes further out, so we would say “big iron skillet.” But we would. I would never say or write “iron big skillet” unless I had realized after I’d already started to say “iron skillet” that there were two of them in there–and even then mostly I’d say “iron skillet–the big one” rather than “iron big skillet.”


(I wonder whether this gets taught in English as a Second Language classes or whether we just leave ESL learners to flounder and tell them that they sound “funny” and “foreign” and “wrong” because most of their teachers can’t articulate why they do, they just do.)


But the thing that occurred to me reading the article was that I use this to signal things like fictional species name when I’m writing speculative fiction. The example they used of “wondrous blue-green Hawaiian gecko” vs. “Hawaiian blue-green wondrous gecko”: in the latter case, I would incline towards “wondrous gecko” being the species name, and if I saw it later in the text as “Caroline advanced toward the wondrous gecko enclosure with the stun gun at ready,” I would take that as further data, not that the enclosure was wondrous, but that the species was called “wondrous gecko.” Because otherwise it’s an awkwardness I would assume that a) someone fluent enough to write in English would catch and b) someone fluent enough to edit in English would catch so that c) it would be there for a reason.


I don’t know if people who primarily read memetic fiction have that reading protocol, or if I’m giving other speculative writers (or speculative readers!) too much credit, but it was a tool in my toolkit I was not conscious of using until there was the adjective order laid out right there, so look: adjective order, it is a thing! If you mess with it, you can sometimes signal things like species name in a speculative context. This has been your afternoon’s SF science nerding with Mris.




Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux

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Comments:
[User Picture]From: swan_tower
2014-08-19 11:31 pm (UTC)
I've thought about that as an ESL issue (or an Any Language as a Second Language issue) a lot -- I'm sure I sound really stupid sometimes in Japanese because I stick my modifiers on in the wrong order, and don't even know there is a right order I'm failing to follow. Good point about its use in worldbuilding, though: I agree that the latter phrasing implies to me that "wondrous gecko" is a type, and furthermore that there are other colors of wondrous gecko, and/or they are found in other places than Hawaii, because we're bothering to specify what kind of wondrous gecko is involved in the story.

Come to think of it, it's also a way to signal non-fluency in dialogue, without resorting to phonetic spelling. I mostly lean on things like failures of verb conjugation (because admit it, that's where most of us face-plant when trying to string together foreign sentences at speed), but that's another tool to put in my kit.
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[User Picture]From: ethelmay
2014-08-20 12:00 am (UTC)
Adjective order is indeed taught in ESL classes, and hardly ever in EFirstL classes (and it's not something I very often see EFirstL speakers making errors in, either). Though Tolkien's mother once told him that one could not say "a green great dragon," but had to say "a great green dragon."
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2014-08-20 12:36 am (UTC)
See, and Tolkien's mother was wrong! if "great dragons" were one thing, like "Komodo dragons" or "Ezekiel's dragons."
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[User Picture]From: swan_tower
2014-08-20 12:59 am (UTC)
. . . now I want to have a breed in the Memoirs that is known as the "great dragon."
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2014-08-20 01:44 am (UTC)
That sounds like it could get Unduly Exciting For Our Heroine.
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[User Picture]From: swan_tower
2014-08-20 07:13 am (UTC)
Or even just Duly Exciting!
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[User Picture]From: brooksmoses
2014-08-20 05:13 am (UTC)
Indeed. Even if it does get Unduly Exciting. Because there likely would be such a thing.

It could be fossilized, though ... except for the whole thing with dragon bones -- are there dragon fossils (aside from in the one cave)? Maybe just skin-imprint and footprint fossils?
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[User Picture]From: swan_tower
2014-08-20 07:13 am (UTC)
Footprint fossils are a thing that was suggested to me a little while ago. Such a thing might show up at some point.
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[User Picture]From: mamculuna
2014-08-20 12:49 am (UTC)
Having taught ESL, I will say that in many classes, it is taught, along with lots of other stuff that's intuitive to native speakers and mysterious to learners (like why you "pay a fee" but "pay for" a purchase, like a bag of nuts). There's lots and lots of research, like this article, that many ESL teachers read.

But as you see, it's complicated, and in some ways people probably learn it best by hearing, speaking, reading, and writing alot of English. Languages aren't very nice about having easily taught rules--acquisition is really how we get it (and I'm guessing you've learned other languages and know this).
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[User Picture]From: tournevis
2014-08-20 02:30 am (UTC)
I learned it, but in either secondary 4th or 5th, so either the second to last or last year of secondary school.
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From: diatryma
2014-08-20 03:04 am (UTC)
One of my best reading-moments in Kate Elliott's Cold Magic books was realizing, around book three, that 'dash jacket' was not 'a jacket that is slangily cool' but a particular type of jacket. I think. Given the way the prose is structured because of how the book is narrated, it might be another rosy-fingered Dawn moment. I don't even care which. I like it either way.

I did the same thing with the wondrous geckos. The author hasn't seen Ursula Vernon's posts on moth nomenclature.
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[User Picture]From: chinders
2014-08-20 04:59 am (UTC)
This is one of the reasons that native speakers don't make good language teachers.
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[User Picture]From: brooksmoses
2014-08-20 05:19 am (UTC)
As is probably typical for these sorts of things, I find myself disagreeing with her examples. Has she not seen blistered varnished wood? It is blistered {varnished wood}; what has blistered is the varnish away from the wood, and so it cannot be varnished blistered wood.
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[User Picture]From: pameladean
2014-08-20 04:58 pm (UTC)
I loved that article, but I had to back up and take a second go at it, because when she remarked that for particular phrasings, nobody would send the grammar cops after Wallace Stevens, I just got completely sidetracked. I know she said they wouldn't, but I kept thinking, "Ha! Just let them try!"

P.
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[User Picture]From: clarentine
2014-08-21 12:35 pm (UTC)
I learned adjective order, and a lot of other grammar stuff, intuitively as you suggested, but I did not really see it until I acquired a thorough grounding in the grammar of a language I hadn't heard from infancy (for me, it was Spanish, though I don't doubt serious study of any foreign language would do it). I didn't understand that English even had verb tenses until I learned them in Spanish.
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