Wordwatch Towers

A plain language guide to punctuation, grammar and writing well.

Word order, wrong words, and old chestnuts

with 2 comments

Wordsworth, the butler here at Wordwatch Towers, likes things to be in good order. Including words. So, reader (hope you’re OK, Gladys), we have him to thank for this one.

Why don’t we write: “the blue big boat”? Or: “a square huge table”? Or: the “meal French lovely”?

As Mark Forsyth, author of The Elements of Eloquence points out, these are examples of ‘hyperbaton’ – or putting words into an odd order.

He explains that certain words have to be put in a certain order or the whole thing sounds wrong. For example, in the case of adjectives (descriptive words), the order has to be:

opinion – size – age – shape – colour – origin – material – purpose – with the noun coming at the end. So our phrases above should be:

  • the big blue boat

  • the huge square table

  • the lovely French meal

We can hear they sound right, but it’s nice to know there’s some method in the English language madness.

Geniuses can do what they like …

Hyperbaton is not always a complete no-no. As Oxford Dictionaries points out, it can be used as a stylistic tool. For example, to emphasise something as in: “This I must see” instead of “I must see this”.

And as Mark Forsyth points out in his book, the line “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown” (Henry IV, Part II) has far more impact than the correctly ordered “The head that wears the crown lies uneasily”. But then Shakespeare was a genius; it’s probably best if the rest of us stick to the right word order, unless we want to a bit like Yoda sound.

 Not music to my ears …

The BBC, eh? They’re usually very good at getting words in the right order, but selecting the correct ones appears to be more of a challenge. This old chestnut slipped into the latest issue of the Beeb’s Music magazine while the editor was taking a nap (and not reading my previous post on this topic):

New York’s Met Opera has a long association with Wagner’s Parsifal as it was, in 1903, the first opera house to stage it outside Europe, flaunting the composer’s wishes …

Flaunting? No. In fact, the New York Met would have been flouting Wagner’s wishes. Flout means to openly disregard  a rule or convention; flaunt means to ‘display ostentatiously’.

 One thing leads to another …

The phrase ‘old chestnut’ is an idiom. While writing this post I became curious about why ‘old chestnut’ came to mean ‘a joke, story, or subject that has become tedious and uninteresting through constant repetition’. (See Oxford Dictionaries) Thank you, Wiktionary, for the answer.

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Written by Wordwatch

10/02/2018 at 12:06 pm

2 Responses

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  1. This is a fascinating short article. I would have sensed intuitively that this is different from a short fascinating article, but now I can prove it!

    John Looker

    11/02/2018 at 8:08 pm


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