Grammar Moses: What's wrong with a big, beautiful grammar column?
Boy, what I wouldn't give for a big, beautiful, delicious, juicy cheeseburger right about now.
Or would it be a beautiful, juicy, delicious, big cheeseburger?
That second variation doesn't have quite the same mouth feel, does it?
That's because while few of us aware of it, there is an order to the multiplicity of adjectives we apply to things.
I never learned about this in school, but I've seen enough internet tropes about it to know there is something to it.
The latest evidence of this comes in the form of an Inc. magazine piece that cites Mark Forsyth's book "The Elements of Eloquence," which I clearly need to read.
In it, he provides the order in which types of adjectives must flow in a sentence: opinion, size, age, shape, color, material, purpose.
Let's put my cheeseburger through its paces:
• big = size
• beautiful = opinion
• delicious = opinion
• juicy = material?
Hmmm, that doesn't quite fit the mold. But it feels right to me.
Perhaps I did not ascribe enough qualities to the cheeseburger I'm thinking about.
Let me instead envision a discarded bike in the garage. I'd describe it as a crappy, old, 26-inch, blue Schwinn one-speed with a coaster brake.
Bingo! That one worked. And I wrote it before having done any research on the topic.
There is one thing about my failed cheeseburger description that has me thinking, though. If the order should be opinion and THEN size, why are so many things big and beautiful?
I went to Google's trusty Ngram Viewer, which looks at word use in books of the last couple of centuries.
Because you must provide a comma delimited list of words or phrases you want to compare, I could not compare "big, beautiful" to "beautiful, big" as the starts of longer descriptions, so I compared them without the commas.
"Big beautiful" is used about 40% more often than "beautiful big," which sprinkles cold water on Forsyth's principle.
One of my latest obsessions is Rush bassist/singer/keyboardist Geddy Lee's tome "The Big Beautiful Book of Bass."
But in most long descriptions you'll find the principle largely holds.
Think of the gorgeous 7-foot, 200-year-old hand-carved curly maple grandfather clock in Aunt Martha's study.
That's opinion-size-age-material-purpose, but it could just as seamlessly be described as a 200-year-old, 7-foot clock, and I don't think anyone's jaw would hit the floor when you said it.
Just make sure you tell Aunt Martha how much you love it next time you see her, and she might leave it to you in her will.
Despite the occasional goof you'll find in the paper - and I'm not talking about myself - there is ample evidence that we do sweat the small stuff.
I was reading over our story budget one day and saw this:
HALLOWEENFIRE ... 12 inches w/ file photo
ALL: Glowing jack-o'-lanterns, bubbling caldrons and elaborate costumes can help make for a festive Halloween, but the Illinois State Fire Marshal has some tips to share to ensure things don't get really scary. REPORTER: WEST
I wrote to City Editor Robert Sanchez and reminded him the word is spelled "cauldron."
Robert, the good journalist that he is, didn't take my word for it, and responded, "My dictionary says 'cauldron' is an alternate spelling of 'caldron.'
Being the self-appointed protector of proper spelling and with a measure of self-defensiveness, I sought out support for my position.
The Oxford Dictionary of American English and Style tells us that "cauldron" is the preferred spelling in American and British English and that it is used four times as often in American English as "caldron."
AP style supports Robert's position, but this is one case in which I'm going to overrule AP.
It was a small victory for me and my flagging memory, but clear evidence that we can challenge each other for 20 minutes on alternate spellings to ensure we get it right.
While I'm on the topic of alternate spellings, I received a note to the copy desk from Assistant News Editor Melynda Shamie the other day about a Page 1 headline that started with "Woah!"
"There's an argument to be made that it's not technically wrong, because 'Woah' is British English. But we're not a UK paper and don't use British English. So, for example, we use 'toward' and not 'towards.'"
About the same time I was reading Mel's note, I received an email from eagle-eye reader Doris Aussin.
"I have a quick question from yesterday's paper," she wrote. "Since when is the word 'whoa' spelled 'woah'? Have I been spelling it incorrectly for most of my long life?"
No, Doris, unless you were schooled in England.
• Jim Baumann is vice president/executive editor of the Daily Herald. You can buy Jim's book, "Grammar Moses: A humorous guide to grammar and usage," at
grammarmosesthebook.com. Write him at email@example.com
and put "Grammar Moses" in the subject line. You also can friend or follow Jim at facebook.com/baumannjim.