The language rules we know – but don’t know we know

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(Credit: Matthew Anderson)
Mark Forsyth tasted internet fame this week when a passage from a book he wrote went viral. He explains more language secrets that native speakers know without knowing.

Over the weekend, I happened to go viral. Or rather a single paragraph from a book I wrote called The Elements of Eloquence went viral. The guilty paragraph went like this:

“Adjectives in English 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 word order in the slightest you’ll sound like a maniac. It’s an odd thing that every English speaker uses that list, but almost none of us could write it out.”

BBC Culture’s editor Matthew Anderson tweeted a passage from Mark Forsyth’s The Elements of Eloquence and it went viral (Credit: Matthew Anderson)

BBC Culture’s editor Matthew Anderson tweeted a passage from Mark Forsyth’s The Elements of Eloquence and it went viral (Credit: Matthew Anderson)

English speakers love to learn this sort of thing for two reasons. First, it astonishes us that there are rules that we didn’t know that we knew. That’s rather peculiar, and rather exciting. We’re all quite a lot cleverer than we think we are. And there’s the shock of realising that there’s a reason there may be little green men on Mars, but there certainly aren’t green little men. Second, you can spend the next hour of your life trying to think of exceptions, which is useful as it keeps you from doing something foolish like working.

Actually, there are a couple of small exceptions. Little Red Riding Hood may be perfectly ordered, but the Big Bad Wolf seems to be breaking all the laws of linguistics. Why does Bad Big Wolf sound so very, very wrong? What happened to the rules?

Ding dong King Kong

Well, in fact, the Big Bad Wolf is just obeying another great linguistic law that every native English speaker knows, but doesn’t know that they know. And it’s the same reason that you’ve never listened to hop-hip music.

If somebody said ‘zag-zig’ or ‘cross-criss’ you would know they were breaking a rule

You are utterly familiar with the rule of ablaut reduplication. You’ve been using it all your life. It’s just that you’ve never heard of it. But if somebody said the words zag-zig, or ‘cross-criss you would know, deep down in your loins, that they were breaking a sacred rule of language. You just wouldn’t know which one.

All four of a horse’s feet make exactly the same sound. But we always, always say clip-clop, never clop-clip. Every second your watch (or the grandfather clock in the hall makes the same sound) but we say tick-tock, never tock-tick. You will never eat a Kat Kit bar. The bells in Frère Jaques will forever chime ‘ding dang dong’.

Reduplication in linguistics is when you repeat a word, sometimes with an altered consonant (lovey-dovey, fuddy-duddy, nitty-gritty), and sometimes with an altered vowel: bish-bash-bosh, ding-dang-dong. If there are three words then the order has to go I, A, O. If there are two words then the first is I and the second is either A or O. Mish-mash, chit-chat, dilly-dally, shilly-shally, tip top, hip-hop, flip-flop, tic tac, sing song, ding dong, King Kong, ping pong.

“What about the Big Bad Wolf?” tweeted many naysayers. But they obviously didn’t know about the rule of ablaut reduplication (Credit: Alamy)

“What about the Big Bad Wolf?” tweeted many naysayers. But they obviously didn’t know about the rule of ablaut reduplication (Credit: Alamy)

Why this should be is a subject of endless debate among linguists, it might be to do with the movement of your tongue or an ancient language of the Caucasus. It doesn’t matter. It’s the law, and, as with the adjectives, you knew it even if you didn’t know you knew it. And the law is so important that you just can’t have a Bad Big Wolf.

Tense situations

It’s astonishing quite how expert you are at the English language. There are so many tenses you can use without even thinking about it, and almost certainly without being able to name them. It depends how you count them, but there are about 20 that you deploy faultlessly. The pluperfect progressive passive for an extended state of action that happened to you prior to another action in the past is, when you put it like that, rather daunting. But then you’d happily say “I realised I’d been being watched” without breaking sweat or blinking. Think how daunting this is for people learning English. The teacher has to explain to them that the English don’t usually use the present tense for things that are happening in the present. “I brush my teeth” doesn’t mean that you’re doing it right now, it just means that you do it regularly. For things that are actually happening right now you use the present progressive “I’m brushing my teeth” (but only if you can speak with your mouth full).

We actually have a tense called the future present – imagine having to learn that

And having learnt that you then have to learn that there are certain exceptions, like the verb ‘to think’ used as an auxiliary, as in “I think you’re right”. This is why, incidentally, lots of non-native speakers will use phrases like “I am thinking that you are right”. It sounds faintly comic to us, but we had years and years and years of immersion learning just to get all these subtleties. And English is complex and weird. We actually have a tense called the Future Present. Imagine having to learn that. But for us it’s just “The train leaves tomorrow.”

Some rules we really should know. It’s surprising and dispiriting how many English people don’t know the rules of stress, because that’s how all our poetry works. It’s quite easy really, and we can hear it in other languages. Everyone knows that Italian has rhythm, it goes MAM-a MI-a BUON-a SER-a. But so does our language. And that’s how verse works. I can illustrate with my favourite limerick (or at least my favourite clean one). Try reading this aloud:

There was a young man from Dundee
Got stung on the leg by a wasp
When asked does it hurt
He said ‘Yes it does.
‘I’m so glad it wasn’t a hornet.’

That has no rhymes, but it still works as a limerick because rhymes aren’t nearly as important as rhythm. And the rhythm goes:

de-DUM-de, de-DUM-de, de-DUM
de-DUM-de, de-DUM-de, de-DUM
de-DUM-de, de-DUM
de-DUM-de, de-DUM
de-DUM-de, de-DUM-de, de-DUM-de

In a strong French accent, there’s no difference between happiness and a penis

Which only works because we know to pronounce Dundee as ‘dun-DEE’, and not to rhyme with Grundy or the Isle of Lundy. It’s the subtle difference when we record a record or present a present or tell a rebel to rebel. It’s a difference that is very hard for people to learn, and is the main reason that, in a strong French accent, there’s no difference between happiness and a penis.

English is an immensely complicated language to get right, and native speakers often have no idea of its strangeness. We understand the sentence “I can’t put up with the guy I’m putting up at my house, his put-downs really put me out and I’m feeling put-upon”. Or “I’m doing up my house and it’s doing me in.” Literally, that should mean “I’m performing my house skywards and it’s performing me towards the interior”. These are called phrasal verbs and they are the nightmare of every would-be English speaker. Somebody once said of Ian Fleming that he got off with women because he couldn’t get on with them. To us that’s a simple joke, to a learner who also has to get through, get by, get down, get with it, get up… it does their head in.

English is largely made up of the rules we don’t know that we know. And actually the rules we know we know are a rarity. We can cling to a few of them at least. At least we all know that we know that adjectives have comparatives and superlatives. Big, bigger, biggest. Hot, hotter, hottest. Easy, easier, easiest. It’s comforting. It’s reliable. It’s something we know that we know.

But can you do it with an adjective that’s three syllables long?

Curiouser and curiouser.

Mark Forsyth is the author of The Elements of Eloquence: How to Turn the Perfect English Phrase

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