Order of modifiers

JC-98

Senior Member
French
Hello,

Trying to write some short stories I was confused about the order of modifier. I have written two sentences:

FIRST SENTENCE
My version :
1 - A random guy, walking along an abandoned old railway, is ending his conversation on the phone.

The correct version should be :

1.2- A random guy, walking along an old abandoned railway, is ending his conversation on the phone.


SECOND SENTENCE

My version :

2- Even before hanging up, the man is called out by a little strange woman wearing warm-colored glasses that barely show her eyes, stands still in front of the railway.

The correct version should be :

2.1- Even before hanging up, the man is called out by a strange little woman wearing warm-colored glasses that barely show her eyes, stands still in front of the railway.



About the correct versions, I made them based on this table :

6AB06231-00ED-497A-9EB0-F754654C8435.jpg


Thank you!
 
  • owlman5

    Senior Member
    English-US
    Hello, JC-98. I am not sure what your question is, but I can confirm that the corrections sound normal. The table that you are using looks reasonable and trustworthy to me.

    People might not always order their adjectives exactly as the table does, but strange little woman sounds far more natural than little strange woman does.
     

    Uncle Jack

    Senior Member
    British English
    Use these sorts of table for guidance, but don't treat them as rigid rules.

    The key thing is what adjective is more intrinsic to the noun. Are you waling along an old railway or an abandoned railway? If the railway is abandoned, then by its very nature we take it to be old, so "abandoned" is the more important word, and we just add "old" for emphasis. However, perhaps you are walking along a former railway (which, in BrE at least, can be called an "old railway" - a trackbed where there are no longer any rails), in which case "old" really needs to go next to "railway". Perhaps you are using "abandoned" to mean overgrown or something like that; the course of the railway has been left to decay. This is rather unlikely (I expect there are better adjectives to use than "abandoned"), but if this is what you meant, then it would have to be an "abandoned old railway" not an "old abandoned railway". An "abandoned railway" still has rails.
     

    JC-98

    Senior Member
    French
    Sorry, my mistake.

    In my sentences I followed the rules of the table.

    Condition = abandoned ; Age = Old

    Condition is before age and what I wrote in my own version of the sentence is :

    A random guy, walking along an abandoned old railway, is ending his conversation on the phone.

    So it should be good but it seems that not..

    Same for little strange woman.
     
    Last edited:

    Uncle Jack

    Senior Member
    British English
    Condition = abandoned ; Age = Old

    Condition is before age and I say in my own version of the sentence :

    A random guy, walking along an abandoned old railway, is ending his conversation on the phone.
    I think there is a layer of adjective that is completely omitted from the table, that of being fundamental to the meaning of the noun. "An abandoned railway" is in most situations something very different from "a railway". There is no risk of getting run down by a train for a start. However, even in other situations where this distinction does not exist, such as "an old abandoned house", I think "old abandoned house" works better than "abandoned old house".

    "Strange little woman" agrees with the table. "Strange" comes under "opinion".
     

    JC-98

    Senior Member
    French
    Use these sorts of table for guidance, but don't treat them as rigid rules.

    The key thing is what adjective is more intrinsic to the noun. Are you waling along an old railway or an abandoned railway? If the railway is abandoned, then by its very nature we take it to be old, so "abandoned" is the more important word, and we just add "old" for emphasis. However, perhaps you are walking along a former railway (which, in BrE at least, can be called an "old railway" - a trackbed where there are no longer any rails), in which case "old" really needs to go next to "railway". Perhaps you are using "abandoned" to mean overgrown or something like that; the course of the railway has been left to decay. This is rather unlikely (I expect there are better adjectives to use than "abandoned"), but if this is what you meant, then it would have to be an "abandoned old railway" not an "old abandoned railway". An "abandoned railway" still has rails.
    I wanted to say that there are no more trains running.

    But what you are saying at the end of your explanation is that my version is correct? I'm confused.
     

    JC-98

    Senior Member
    French
    I'm sorry I still don't understand how to get this instinctively. Since I based the order of the modifier from the table shown above. But "A random guy, walking along an old abandoned railway, is ending his conversation on the phone." doesn't respect the order mentionned by the table.
     

    JC-98

    Senior Member
    French
    Alright but it doesn’t really explain for foreign people like my example how we interchange the order.

    For you as a native english speaker why my version of “abandoned old railway” sounds less natural than “old abandoned railway”

    Please?
     

    Uncle Jack

    Senior Member
    British English
    Alright but it doesn’t really explain for foreign people like my example how we interchange the order.

    For you as a native english speaker why my version of “abandoned old railway” sounds less natural than “old abandoned railway”

    Please?
    Let me ask you a question. What exactly do you visualise when you say "old" in "an old abandoned railway" or "an abandoned old railway"? What additional information does "old" provide? We all know what an abandoned railway is, but what makes an abandoned old railway, or an old abandoned railway, different from an abandoned railway?
     

    JC-98

    Senior Member
    French
    Let me ask you a question. What exactly do you visualise when you say "old" in "an old abandoned railway" or "an abandoned old railway"? What additional information does "old" provide? We all know what an abandoned railway is, but what makes an abandoned old railway, or an old abandoned railway, different from an abandoned railway?
    I used "old" since in my story the railway was built a centhury before my story takes place. In the story we understand that the railway are same as those of the beginning of industrialization (it's visuall what I'm talking about since my story is a screenplay)

    So, it's an information adding more details about the environment where the random guy is. At the end of the story we see a steam train, that is why I emphasise the fact that the railway is old.

    Do you understand my point? :)
     

    Uncle Jack

    Senior Member
    British English
    The problem is with the word "old". We don't immediately recognise it as meaning "aged", and are more likely, particularly with "abandoned", to interpret it as meaning "former". If you use a word that unambiguously refers to when the railway was built, such as Victorian (in a British context: the period from 1837 to 1901), then it would be "an abandoned Victorian railway" without a doubt, and "a Victorian abandoned railway" would suggest that the railway had been abandoned in Victorian times, if it suggested anything at all (it would be more likely to make readers scratch their heads in puzzlement).

    However, even "an abandoned Victorian railway" would make little sense. In what way is an abandoned Victorian railway, dating from the nineteenth century, different from an abandoned railway dating from the second half of the twentieth century? How would you tell the difference? Abandoned railways by their very nature tend not to be modern high-speed lines.

    At the end of the story we see a steam train
    How does this fit in? The story must be set in modern times for the man to be using his phone. If the railway is abandoned, there ought not be a train at all, and in any case, just because the train is old does not mean that the railway it is running on is old.
     

    JC-98

    Senior Member
    French
    The problem is with the word "old". We don't immediately recognise it as meaning "aged", and are more likely, particularly with "abandoned", to interpret it as meaning "former". If you use a word that unambiguously refers to when the railway was built, such as Victorian (in a British context: the period from 1837 to 1901), then it would be "an abandoned Victorian railway" without a doubt, and "a Victorian abandoned railway" would suggest that the railway had been abandoned in Victorian times, if it suggested anything at all (it would be more likely to make readers scratch their heads in puzzlement).

    However, even "an abandoned Victorian railway" would make little sense. In what way is an abandoned Victorian railway, dating from the nineteenth century, different from an abandoned railway dating from the second half of the twentieth century? How would you tell the difference? Abandoned railways by their very nature tend not to be modern high-speed lines.


    How does this fit in? The story must be set in modern times for the man to be using his phone. If the railway is abandoned, there ought not be a train at all, and in any case, just because the train is old does not mean that the railway it is running on is old.


    Yes, it’s a modern story, but with a touch of fantastic ending. Explaining why there is a steam train.

    I understand what you said about the use of the term Victorian. It was just to make a précision about the railway since now they are all connected with electric wires and I wanted a place with the nature covering the track.

    Coming back to my issue, the word “aged” could be the appropriate word for the railway, therefore it would be like this :

    -An aged abandoned railway

    or

    -An abandoned aged railway ?

    It’s always the same problem for me because, if we leave aside the appropriate word to put before railway and coming back to the choose of “old” in the sentence.
    How do I know if I have to put it before of after “abandoned” since the table said the “condition” before the “age”.

    That’s what I did in my first example but it appears to be wrong...
     

    Uncle Jack

    Senior Member
    British English
    I expect you are looking for an everyday word, and "aged" does not work here.

    I suggest you either use "old" and put it first, and accept that it is something of an oddity, or else you omit "old" altogether. There isn't a straightforward way that I can think of for saying that the railways was built a long time ago, not unless you use "old" as a predicate in a separate clause:
    A random guy, walking along an abandoned railway, is ending his conversation on the phone. The railway looks old.​

    It is moderately common in English for attributive and predicative adjectives to have different meanings. As a predicate, "old" can never mean "former".
     

    JC-98

    Senior Member
    French
    Okay I got it!

    But what you are saying intrigues me about "old". " As a predicate, "old" can never mean "former"."

    So imagine if I want to say that : The colour of this sweater is an old fashion.

    Here old means former, no?

    Or even I say : The way you are talking is an old way of communicating with people

    Same, no?
     

    Uncle Jack

    Senior Member
    British English
    So imagine if I want to say that : The colour of this sweater is an old fashion.

    Here old means former, no?
    No. Fashions may be current, obsolete or positively antediluvian, but they cannot be "former". "Old" meaning "former" can only really be used for things that have (or had) a function. The thing may still exist as a physical object, but it no longer has its original function.

    There is a further caveat. If the context makes it clear that the thing does still have its original function, then "old" won't be taken to mean "former".

    Even here, "old" may mean something more than just aged. It is unlikely that "old aircraft" would be used, on its own without any other clues as to the meaning, to refer to an elderly example of a type of aircraft that is still in widespread use. A 50-year old Boeing 747 is, in one sense, an "old aircraft", but it isn't what most people would immediately think of when they heard the term "old aircraft". Instead they would imagine a previous generation of aircraft, perhaps anything from a biplane to a DC-3 (a propeller-driven aircraft last made in 1950).

    Or even I say : The way you are talking is an old way of communicating with people

    Same, no?
    It probably means (more or less) obsolete. If the speaker wanted to say that it had a long history, and did not want to convey an impression that it was no longer used, they might pick a different term, such as ancient or traditional.
     

    Hermione Golightly

    Senior Member
    British English
    Unless you live surrounded by people speaking English, saturated in it in all forms, you will never get that instinctive feel about the order of adjectives.
    Native speakers sometimes aren't sure either, even when they have well-chosen adjectives.
    While there's no doubt about 'little old woman' or was it 'strange little old woman', I am baffled by the 'old abandoned railway'. The word I'd use is 'railtrack'. Of course it's old! If you want to enhance 'abandoned' try using 'long' as a prefix.
    Very few people's learnt English is good enough to write well in English. And writing fiction is by far the most dificult of the four skills.
     

    JC-98

    Senior Member
    French
    L
    Unless you live surrounded by people speaking English, saturated in it in all forms, you will never get that instinctive feel about the order of adjectives.
    Native speakers sometimes aren't sure either, even when they have well-chosen adjectives.
    While there's no doubt about 'little old woman' or was it 'strange little old woman', I am baffled by the 'old abandoned railway'. The word I'd use is 'railtrack'. Of course it's old! If you want to enhance 'abandoned' try using 'long' as a prefix.
    Very few people's learnt English is good enough to write well in English. And writing fiction is by far the most dificult of the four skills.
    Like this : "a long-abandoned"?
     
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