The Grammarphobia Blog

Vowel movement

Q: You’ve discussed adjective order (why we say “a perfect little black dress,” not “a black perfect little dress”), but you haven’t written about the order of vowels—why we say “zig-zag,” not “zag-zig.”

A: As we’ve written several times on our blog—in 2010, 2017, and 2019—certain kinds of adjectives occur in a predictable order. An opinion adjective normally comes ahead of one for size, and both come before color. You can see this pattern in “a perfect little black dress.”

However, a phrase like “zig-zag” or “tick-tock” conforms to an entirely different language pattern (call it another unwritten rule if you like). This one governs how we arrange vowel sounds in a sequence.

We touched on this subject before in a 2015 post about so-called “reduplicative” words, those formed by the repetition of similar words or word elements, perhaps with some alterations.

For example, “goody-goody,” with no alteration in the elements, is a simple (or “copy”) reduplicative. One like “fuddy-duddy,” with the consonant altered in the repetition, is a rhyming reduplicative. And one like “zig-zag,” with the vowel sound altered in the repetition, is known as an “ablaut” (that is, vowel) reduplicative.

And as it happens, ablaut reduplicatives conform to a pattern, one in which vowel sounds naturally occur in a certain order. Invariably, a high vowel (quick, tight, and pronounced at the front of the mouth) will be reduplicated by a lower one (more drawn out, open, pronounced further back). Here’s how this works.

A short “i” sound, as in “zig,” comes before an “a” sound, as in “zag.” This is why we prefer “zig-zag” to “zag-zig,” just as we prefer “riff-raff” to “raff-riff” and “wishy-washy” to “washy-wishy.”

Similarly, a short “i” sound comes before an “o” sound (“flip-flop,” “criss-cross”). Here are the most common reduplicatives that illustrate this “i-a-o” (think of “tic-tac-toe”) order.

  • “i” before “a” sounds: “zig-zag,” “riff-raff,” “pitter-patter,” “mish-mash,” “splish-splash,” “dilly-dally,” “shilly-shally,” “tittle-tattle,” “jingle-jangle,” “wishy-washy,” “flim-flam,” “knick-knack,” “chit-chat,” “wig-wag”
  • “i” before “o” sounds: “tick-tock,” “clip-clop,” “flip-flop,” “hip-hop,” “tip top,” “drip-drop,” “criss-cross,” “ding-dong,” “ping pong,” “King Kong,” “sing song”

(Less significantly, an “ee” sound comes before an “o” or “aw” sound, but there aren’t many ablaut reduplicatives like this. Among the few examples are “see-saw,” “teeter-totter,” “be-bop,” and “hee-haw.”)

Patterns of ablaut reduplication are found not only in different languages, but in entirely different language families. The phenomenon has been discussed by philologists for more than a century and a half, with early research papers on the subject dating as far back as 1862.

English speakers have been forming new words by this kind of repetition since the Middle Ages. Historically, as the linguist Donka Minkova has written, simple or “copy” reduplicatives (like “yo-yo”) came first, with the others appearing by the end of the 15th century—the rhyming types, like “hocus-pocus,” and the ablauts, like “riff-raff.” (From “Ablaut Reduplication in English: The Criss-crossing of Prosody and Verbal Art,” published in the journal English Language and Linguistics, May 2002.)

The formation of new reduplicatives, Minkova writes, “declined sharply in the twentieth century.” (She rules out formations in which one half modifies the other: “Super-duper is a case of reduplication, while pooper scooper is not.”)

Scholars aren’t the only ones to take note of such patterns. Marketers are on the case, too. Think of ablaut reduplicatives the next time you spot brand names like “Kit Kat,” “Tic Tac,” “Spic and Span,” and “Ding Dongs.”

What happens when there’s a clash between the unwritten rules of adjective order and vowel order? The usual arrangement of the vowels seems to take precedence over the order of the adjectives.

That’s why we say “big bad wolf” instead of “bad big wolf.” A short “i” sound, as in “big,” comes before an “a” sound, as in “bad.”

Of course, “big bad” is not itself a reduplication—that is, a single element being echoed. But we have a choice in how to arrange two short adjectives. And the preferred order is based not on the meaning of the words but on their vowel sounds.

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