Adjective order after copula: The fat young boy is young and fat?

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Wilma_Sweden

Senior Member
Swedish (Scania)
On a different site, a beginner student of English had written 'Peter is fat and young.' when asked to describe a person. I'm unhappy about the order of the adjectives, and I'm not sure whether I should be.

I've read all about the adjective order when adjectives are placed before a noun, i.e. as a pre-modifier in a noun phrase. The bright green scarf thread was one of the very helpful ones.

However, I haven't found a single thread discussing the order of adjectives when they appear after a copular verb, as a subject complement. Does the Royal Order of Adjectives still apply, or is it in fact reversed, or is it completely free?

Example:
A fat young boy:
The boy is fat and young
or
The boy is young and fat ??? (My preferred choice)

An ugly long green scarf:
The scarf is green, long and ugly or
The scarf is ugly, long and green or
The scarf is long, green and ugly (My preferred choice)

A derelict old house:
The house looks old and derelict (My preferred choice)
The house looks derelict and old

I can't explain my preferences, other than that they 'sound' better, which doesn't help a great deal if you have to explain it to someone else. I'd appreciate comments from native speakers - do you agree with my choice of order, is there a rule, or is it based on phonology?

/Wilma
 
  • Loob

    Senior Member
    English UK
    I agree with all your preferences, Wilma.

    I think that's because they do follow the "Royal Order of Adjectives". I reckon it's just as applicable to predicative adjectives as to attributive ones, though I don't recall seeing anything that actually says so....
     
    Last edited:

    bibliolept

    Senior Member
    AE, Español
    The boy is fat and young or <- This has a more poetic/classical flavor to it, in my opinion.
    The boy is young and fat <- This would probably be my choice. I tend to, subconsciously, list adjectives in order of salience: the more obvious stuff first, details later.

    The scarf is green, long and ugly and The scarf is long, green and ugly sound equally acceptable to my ear. I guess I put more factual descriptions first and list judgments at the end.

    The house looks old and derelict is my choice. The reason could be a mixture of the other factors I mentioned above.

    The royal order has shaped the language to such a degree that it wouldn't surprise me to find that following it yields the most pleasing ordering.
     

    Wilma_Sweden

    Senior Member
    Swedish (Scania)
    Thanks, Loob! In that case, it's the Royal Order reversed, at least for case #1 and 3, but not for case # 2, where our preferred choice is different, but sounds better.

    Edit: Thanks also to Bibliolept. I was thinking that perhaps the order is also affected by what quality you think is important; if both of them are value judgements, you'd probably put the most important one at the end.

    I'd be happy to conclude that it's usually the Royal Order reversed, unless something else comes to mind.

    /Wilma
     
    Last edited:

    Loob

    Senior Member
    English UK
    Thanks, Loob! In that case, it's the Royal Order reversed, at least for case #1 and 3, but not for case # 2, where our preferred choice is different, but sounds better.
    You're right, Wilma! I've just struck through the rubbish I was talking in the second paragraph of my earlier post: I didn't even check the "Royal Order" link, because your preferences seemed so natural:eek:.

    I'm going to have a ponder about (2) and come back...
     

    Loob

    Senior Member
    English UK
    Well, I've been bouncing this around inside what passes for my brain for a little while.

    First, I thought "Ah, it's because there are three adjectives in (2)". But I realised I would probably say the scarf was long and green not the scarf was green and long.

    Then I thought "it's interesting that biblio saw this two ways, and one of his ways is, precisely, the Royal Order reversed".

    And then I thought "perhaps I prefer long before green because most scarves are long, so long is not that interesting/distinctive".

    And then I thought "perhaps long green is more euphonious than green long".



    And then my head exploded.
     

    natkretep

    Moderato con anima (English Only)
    English (Singapore/UK), basic Chinese
    Hope your head is back in one piece, Loob!

    My preferences:

    The boy is young and fat (Like Wilma's)

    The scarf is green, long and ugly or The scarf is long, green and ugly (Like Biblio's)

    The house looks old and derelict (Like Wilma's)

    I'm just wondering whether the 'end-weight principle' affects choice - ie whether the most significant or the most surprising element is reserved for the last. This is similar to Loob's point about which elements are interesting or distinctive. (I suspect euphony does not come into it most often, although I think if the polysyllabic adjective can come at the end ['old and derelict'], that's a bonus as well.)

    So lots of houses are old, but not so many derelict (and 'derelict' is a more unusual word than 'old').

    For the second sentence, I suspect 'long' is a more common word than 'green', and might explain my slight preference for the 'long, green ...' order. But 'ugly' is the one that is meant to get your hearer's attention, so that's reserved for the end.

    Similarly, for the first sentence, lots of people are young, but what is significant is that the boy is fat.
     
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