The “Royal Order” of What, Now?

July 10, 2017

Here’s something I’ve often wondered about: Why do English speakers innately grasp the natural placement of adjectives in sentences? For instance, why do we always describe a “creepy little old man” instead of an “old creepy little man” – or even an “old little creepy man” – in that precise order? And why is it some strings of adjectives get separated by commas while others don’t… like a “hideous, barbaric monster” or an “unkempt, disheveled urchin”?

These are the things that keep me awake nights… when I’m not being awakened by our left-side next-door neighbor’s rooster going off at odd hours or the right-side next-door neighbor’s yappy dogs.

Oddly enough, there’s an actual reason for this – the adjective order and the commas, not the stuff that wakes me up at night. It’s because of something called the “Royal Order of Adjectives” (not to be confused with the Loyal Order of Water Buffalo, for those of us old enough to remember watching The Flintstones). The Royal Order of Adjectives is a set of specific guidelines by which English-language sentences are structured, regarding the placement of adjectives.

Nine descriptors comprise this Royal Order. They are: determiners; observations/opinions; size; shape; age; color; origin; material; and type. Because observation/opinion precedes size, which precedes color, we’d say “creepy little old man” instead of any other configuration. And because they fall into different descriptor categories (cumulative as opposed to coordinate adjectives), they require no comma.

Conversely, strings of adjectives within the same descriptor category do get separated by commas, because they are of equal weight (for lack of a better way to describe this).

Let’s explore those nine descriptors.

  1. Determiners – these specify the item being described (e.g., that, my, their)
  2. Observations/opinions – subjective descriptions (e.g., crumbling, hairy, disheveled)
  3. Size (e.g., medium, microscopic, gargantuan)
  4. Shape – physical dimensions (e.g., round, rhombic, star-shaped)
  5. Age (e.g., Art Nouveau, antique, seven-year-old)
  6. Color (e.g., blonde, crimson, cerulean)
  7. Origin – the item’s place of origin (e.g., Chinese, American, Tibetan)
  8. Material – what the item is made of (e.g., cotton, iron, maple)
  9. Qualifier – this refers to specific properties or type, and may be considered part of the name of the item being described (e.g., boudoir lamp, cellular phone, electric guitar)

Go ahead and use any number of descriptors in your writing – just be sure to put them in the proper order. You could describe “her clingy blue skirt”; “his rusted, clunky [note: You’d use a comma here because both adjectives are observation/opinion descriptors] oblong red wagon” or even “my sleek antique black European spruce grand piano.”

And now that I’m fairly certain I won’t be kept awake wondering about adjective placement, I might just get a good night’s sleep tonight. What more could I ask for?

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Former Founder?

May 18, 2017

From this morning’s top-of-the-hour national news about the passing of Roger Ailes, one thing has become awkwardly evident to me: The reporters at ABC Radio have no actual understanding of the proper usage of the word “former.”

All morning, they were identifying Ailes as the “former founder and chairman of Fox News,” which made me go pawing through my utility cabinet in search of duct tape – to prevent I.C.E. (imminent cranial explosion).

I’m guessing a few folks are scratching their respective heads and wondering, “What’s wrong with that?” Well, once you’ve been established as the founder of something, that particular designation can never be taken away – so Ailes could not possibly have been the news organization’s “former founder.”

How might this have been remedied? Well, for starters, ABC News could employ writers with a more-precise grasp of the English language. Beyond that, I’d recommend phrasing the sentence so the adjective “former” modified “chairman.” The correct way to identify Ailes (who resigned last year) would be “founder and former chairman of Fox News.” His designation as former chairman of Fox News had no bearing whatsoever on his status as its founder.

On a personal note, this obvious gaffe brought back memories from my nearly ten years as board secretary for the Connecticut Authors and Publishers Association. In emails, at monthly meetings and in what came to be known as the unofficial “Blue Minutes” from those meetings, we’d often refer to founder Brian Jud as CAPA’s “former founder” – with his full understanding that we were being intentionally goofy with that title.

However, to earnestly call someone the “former founder” of anything shows a basic lack of awareness. It’s akin to referring to someone as a “former graduate” of a college (and yes, I’ve heard that phrase so often my dentist is planning to fit me for a dental guard so I don’t grind my teeth into piles of enamel dust). Either you’re a graduate of an institution or you’re not – you can’t suddenly become no longer a graduate. There’s no need for an adjective. Still, if you must use one, consider “past.”

Think I’m making too much of this whole “former” issue? Go ahead and refer to a retired member of the U.S. Marine Corps as a “former Marine.” I will assume no responsibility whatsoever for your resulting injuries.


CAPA-U 2011

May 5, 2011

This Saturday, May 7, I’ll be speaking at the eighth annual Connecticut Authors & Publishers Association professional-development day for writers. CAPA-U (short for CAPA University) will be at the Hartford Steam Boiler Conference Center, One State Street, Hartford, CT.

I’ll be part of a panel discussing what to expect when working with an editor, and how to get the most from the author-editor relationship. We’ll likely touch on word choice, style, punctuation, spelling, grammar… perhaps even the funny side of the editing process – and, of course, we’ll set aside time to answer your questions.

Your admission gets you the day-long conference, complete with a choice of fifteen different workshops, keynote address, agents’ panel and a one-on-one meeting with a literary agent to discuss your work. A delicious buffet lunch is included… as is secured, indoor parking on site. It’s an amazing opportunity to meet and talk with other authors, hear some informational and inspiring speakers – and possibly win a refund of your registration fee. Not a writer but know someone who is? A ticket to CAPA-U makes a great Mother’s Day present!

There’s still time to sign up for CAPA-U… but don’t delay; registrations are filling up fast! Hope to see you there!


Speaking Engagement

May 28, 2009

I know it’s been a while since I’ve posted anything and, in case you were wondering, the session at CAPA-U went really well.

I’ve just gotten another speaking engagement. I’ll be a guest presenter at the Rocky Hill Re-employment Group on Thursday, June 18. My topic will be “Grammar 101: How Not to Blow the Interview When You Open Your Mouth.”

This idea arose from my having to sit through one too many presentations by sales professionals who should know better – folks who say things like, “Me and my partner went to a seminar last month,” or “Him and me are going to talk about red widgets…” or the dreaded, “On behalf of my colleague and myself…”

Are you sensing my frustration here? Hang on a second while I thump my head against my desk in futility.

I’ll probably also veer off a little into the need to proofread your resume carefully. After all, you don’t want to send off your resume to a potential employer only to realize later that you listed your last job as “Pubic Relations Manger.”

I may be wrong, but that kind of thing seems awfully specialized… and I’m not sure many folks are hiring mangers these days, pubic or otherwise.

All levity aside, I must admit, I’m a smidgen anxious about getting up in front of people who are really there; my background is in radio – I’m used to talking to people who aren’t there. Really! I used to spend five or six hours a day in a 10×12-foot room, talking into a microphone to people who weren’t there! Now, I could reasonably assume someone was listening (if only my mother… and Scruffy, my cat), but I had no logical way of knowing someone was actually tuned in and paying attention to what I was saying.

And now – well, I just spend my days sitting at a computer, typing words… granted, I’m building pretty things with those words, crafting all kinds of fun structural stuff and making folks go, “Gee, I really want to buy that, now that you’ve described it so nicely!”

But addressing a group of live human beings? Not so much my comfort zone.

If you speak in front of people, how do you get up there and do it? What are your tips, your suggestions, your tools of the trade that make you not want to squeak, “Eep!” and hide behind your lectern?


CAPA-U… Seven Days and Counting

May 2, 2009

Next Saturday (May 9, 2009), I’ll be taking part in an editors’ panel at CAPA University, a day-long professional-development day for writers; I’ll be part of a three-member panel of experts. This sixth annual event is sponsored by the Connecticut Authors & Publishers Association.

Some of the topics we’re sure to discuss will be word usage, spelling, grammar, punctuation, general editing and proofreading.

What are your thorniest proofreading/editing concerns? If you were to attend this panel discussion, what burning question would you most like answered or addressed?


When to use “They’re,” “their” or “there”

April 12, 2009

Question: Which sentence is correct?

“There putting they’re stuff over their.”

– or –

“They’re putting their stuff over there.”

Answer: The second one is correct.

I was going to put “Obviously” at the front of that sentence, but it’s all too clear that the answer isn’t obvious.

It seems so simple, yet it’s an issue that continually plagues everyone from middle-school students to business executives. Let’s tackle this one with a few simple examples.

Basically, if you’re attempting to replace the words “they are,” you’d use “they’re,” which is a contraction of those two words.

If you’re giving directions, that one’s easy. Just think of it this way: “I just have to put a “t” on the beginning of ‘here’ to get to ‘there.'”

And “their” is a possessive pronoun. So “their stuff” means “the stuff that belongs to them.”

With that in mind, our second sentence could be reworded thus: “They are putting the stuff that belongs to them not here, but in that place.” Or something like that.

What are your spelling bugaboos? Have you got a word you chronically misspell? Talk to us… maybe we can help you come up with a simple solution to remember the correct spelling.