Q: If, as a child, I said, “That me truck,” someone would have corrected me. But if I said, “my plastic blue new nice truck,” I don’t think anyone would have told me the order was wrong. So how do such conventions get passed on?
A: We’ve already written about the order of adjectives in noun phrases. A post in 2010 explains why we say “a perfect little black dress,” not “a black perfect little dress.” And a 2017 post discusses the lack of commas in such a phrase.
However, we haven’t written about how children become aware of the conventions for using premodifiers.
Entire books and countless papers have been written about the order of premodifiers. But we haven’t found a definitive answer as to how this apparently “natural” order is passed on.
As you suggest, a toddler who says “my plastic blue new nice truck” is probably not corrected to say, “my nice new blue plastic truck,” yet somehow the conventional order eventually becomes automatic.
How does this happen? We can offer a couple of possibilities.
As children become more articulate, either (1) they imitate what they hear around them, with adults consistently placing adjectives in a given order, or (2) they intuitively grasp that there’s a natural hierarchy of English adjectives.
We lean toward #2, though #1 may play a role. If #2 is the answer, and there’s a natural hierarchy, it may be organized roughly like this:
The adjectives closest to the noun reflect qualities that exist in the noun (like “blue” or “plastic”), while those further from the noun reflect subjective opinions or evaluations (like “nice” and “new”).
This seems to be the pattern when linguists and grammarians write about the order in which English premodifiers appear.
For example, English Grammar Today, by Ronald Carter et al., divides them into 10 categories, beginning with those that are always first in line—that is, farthest from the noun (the head of the phrase):
“1. opinion (unusual, lovely, beautiful); 2. size (big, small, tall); 3. physical quality (thin, rough, untidy); 4. shape (round, square, rectangular); 5. age (young, old, youthful); 6. colour (blue, red, pink); 7. origin (Dutch, Japanese, Turkish); 8. material (metal, wood, plastic); 9. type (general-purpose, four-sided, U-shaped); 10. purpose (cleaning, hammering, cooking).”
In A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, Randolph Quirk and his co-authors suggest that “a subjective/objective polarity” accounts for the order of premodifiers in English:
“That is, modifiers relating to properties which are (relatively) inherent in the head of the noun phrase, visually observable, and objectively recognizable or assessible, will tend to be placed nearer to the head and be preceded by modifiers concerned with what is relatively a matter of opinion, imposed on the head by the observer, not visually observed, and only subjectively assessible.”
It’s interesting to note that English isn’t unique in the ordering of modifiers before a noun. In his book Linguistic Semantics (1992), William Frawley writes:
“English, German, Hungarian, Polish, Turkish, Hindi, Persian, Indonesian, and Basque all order value before size, and those two before color: Value > Size > Color.”