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HomeCrazy EnglishHow non-English speakers are taught this crazy English grammar rule you know...

How non-English speakers are taught this crazy English grammar rule you know but have never heard of

That quote comes from a book calledThe Elements of Eloquence: How to Turn the Perfect English Phrase.Adjectives, writes the author, professional stickler Mark Forsyth, absolutely have to be in this order: opinion-size-age-shape-colour-origin-material-purpose Noun. So you can have a lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife. But if you mess with that order in the slightest youll sound like a maniac.

From English Grammar in Usea self study reference and practise book for intermediate students by Raymond Murphy, published by Cambridge University Press in 1994.

Mixing up the above phrase does, as Forsyth writes, feel inexplicably wrong (a rectangular silver French old little lovely whittling green knife), though nobody can say why. Its almost like secret knowledge we all share.

Matthew Anderson (@MattAndersonBBC)September 3, 2016

The fact is, a lot of English grammar rules only come as a surprise to those who know them most intimately.

Learning rules doesnt always work, however. Forsyth also takes issue with the rules we think we know, but which dont actually hold true. Ina lecture about grammar, he dismantles the commonly held English spelling mantra I before E except after C. Its used to help people remember how to spell words like piece, but, Forsyth says, there are only 44 words that follow the rule, and 923 that dont. His prime examples? Their, being, and eight.

Learn the language in a non-English-speaking country, however, and such secrets are taught in meticulous detail. Heres a page from a book, published by Cambridge University Press, used regularly to teach English to non-native speakers. An English teacher in Hungary sent it to us.

But some of the most binding rules in English are things that native speakers know but dont know they know, even though they use them every day. When someone points one out, its like a magical little shock.

The book lays out the adjective order in the same way as Forsyths surprising illumination. Hungarian students, and no doubt those in many other countries, slave over the rule, committing it to memory and thinking through the order when called upon to describe something using more than one adjective.

Things native English speakers know, but dont know we /Ex0Ui9oBSL

English grammar, beloved by sticklers, is also feared by non-native speakers. Many of its idiosyncrasies can turn into traps even for the most confident users.

This week, for example, the BBCs Matthew Anderson pointed out a rule about the order in which adjectives have to be put in front of a noun. Judging by the number of retweetsover 47,000 at last countthis came as a complete surprise to many people who thought they knew all about English:


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