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Yvain comments on Being a teacher - Less Wrong

51 Post author: Swimmer963 14 March 2011 08:03PM

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Comment author: Yvain 14 March 2011 09:23:15PM *  30 points [-]

I used to teach English as a second language. It was a mind trip.

I remember one of my students saying something like "I saw a brown big spider". I responded "No, it should be 'big brown spider'". He asked why. Not only did I not know the rule involved, I had never even imagined that anyone would ever say it the other way until that moment.

Such experiences were pretty much daily occurrences.

Comment author: JoshuaZ 15 March 2011 04:15:02AM 7 points [-]

Yes, I only recently found out that English has rules for adjectival order, and was shocked to realize it. I always did it without thinking. Apparently as a general rule of thumb, the more subjective something is the earlier it should go. But that's not all, since apparently age always goes after subjective opinion but always before colors. And there are lots of other priority rules. I'm waiting for someone to construct an example where one has adjectives in pairs that exhibit non-transitive order.

Comment author: Mark_Eichenlaub 20 March 2011 05:22:26AM *  4 points [-]

I'm waiting for someone to construct an example where one has adjectives in pairs that exhibit non-transitive order.

To me, a "solitary blue Smurf" is the color blue, but a "blue, solitary Smurf" is sad.

From The Night Before Christmas

"He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,"


"He was chubby and plump, a right old jolly elf,"

The original doesn't make me think that Saint Nick is literally old. It's more like the "old" in "good old boys" (which is another example; compare to "old good boys"). The transposition seems to change the literal meaning. If you permute some more, you can wind up with nonsense - "an old jolly right elf", "an old right jolly elf", etc.

As another example, I would have a different idea of what's being said if someone pointed out to me a "sweaty hot runner" versus a "hot sweaty runner". The first makes me think the runner is sexually attractive, but the second doesn't.

Comment author: Alicorn 20 March 2011 05:26:00AM 6 points [-]

The nonsense permutations, where "right" doesn't come first, are probably because "right" is acting as an adverb here, modifying the adjectives and not the noun.

Comment author: Mark_Eichenlaub 20 March 2011 05:43:07AM 1 point [-]

Ah, yes. That sounds right.

Comment author: JoshuaZ 20 March 2011 11:21:55PM *  0 points [-]

As another example, I would have a different idea of what's being said if someone pointed out to me a "sweaty hot runner" versus a "hot sweaty runner". The first makes me think the runner is sexually attractive, but the second doesn't.

This doesn't' seem to be a transitivity issue. Rather, this seems to rest on the fact that the same adjectives have different meanings, and the different meanings fall into different parts of the hierarchy. But I'm not sure.

Comment author: Mark_Eichenlaub 21 March 2011 07:14:00AM 2 points [-]

First, I guess I should clear up that we're talking about commutativity, not transitivity.

I think it is an example of non-commutativity. It's exactly the same words with the order switched, and the meaning changes. However, you're also right to point out that the meaning of the word "hot" is changing even though the word itself is not.

Here's an example of non-commutativity in which the words' individual meanings stay the same, but the overall meaning changes.

"I remember my good first attempt."

"I remember my first good attempt."

Comment author: JoshuaZ 21 March 2011 01:28:06PM 1 point [-]

Yes, I meant transitivity, as in the correct seeming order for adjectives A,B,C seems in pairs to be AB, BC,CA.

Comment author: Mark_Eichenlaub 30 March 2011 11:07:08AM 0 points [-]

Oh, I see. Sorry I missed the point. I don't have any examples of examples of that.

Comment author: jmmcd 15 March 2011 06:44:10PM *  0 points [-]

The idea of non-transitivity sounds really interesting -- can you point to an explanation of the supposed rules?

Comment author: JoshuaZ 15 March 2011 07:36:51PM *  0 points [-]

This has a rough summary of the rules. If the rules are as hierarchical as they suggest then there aren't any non-transitive issues. But there are some adjectives that don't fall into those categories.

Comment author: SilasBarta 14 March 2011 09:52:02PM 3 points [-]

That's not really a grammatical error though. If you were giving off a description as you got it, you wouldn't be expected to restart -- you could say, "I saw a brown ... big ... spider" rather than "I saw a brown ... no, big brown spider."

It's not the same level of error as if he said "I seed a big brown spider" or "I saw a big brown spiders." True, you may not know why we have a preference for placing certain adjectives first, but then, it's not as important to learn, either.

Now, if you had to explain why French only conjugates verbs in written rather than spoken form ...

Comment author: Vladimir_M 14 March 2011 11:30:02PM *  10 points [-]

Now, if you had to explain why French only conjugates verbs in written rather than spoken form ...

For the same reason English spells write, right, Wright, and rite differently. They used to be pronounced differently, but aren't any more, and the spelling hasn't been updated to reflect that.

Comment author: rabidchicken 15 March 2011 04:21:39AM 1 point [-]

this has always driven me nuts and English is my first language... I would start using phonetic spelling right now, but it seems like more effort than it is worth to convince everyone I know to accept it.

Comment author: David_Gerard 15 March 2011 10:10:40AM 7 points [-]

And determining which regional accent wins.

Comment author: wisnij 17 March 2011 08:31:37PM *  1 point [-]

I wouldn't call it an error per se, but it's definitely unidiomatic. Native speakers will consistently produce big brown spider far more often than ?brown big spider. Some languages enforce this more strictly than others, and in some the words can be deliberately moved out of the usual order for emphasis. (E.g. in such a language, a phrase equivalent to "brown big spider" would roughly mean "big brown spider".)

Comment author: Emile 14 March 2011 09:55:32PM 1 point [-]

Now, if you had to explain why French only conjugates verbs in written rather than spoken form ...

We do?

Like Yvain, I once taught French as a second language, and don't remember that. I did have a lot of cases of "there's probably a rule but I don't know how to spell it out".

Comment author: SilasBarta 14 March 2011 09:58:14PM 0 points [-]

We do?

In a way -- I'm referring to how a lot of the forms sound the same but have to be written differently -- e.g. parle vs. parles.

Comment author: Emile 14 March 2011 10:08:42PM *  7 points [-]

Oh, that, yes - I ascribe that more to the fact that written French just has a lot of letters you don't pronounce, or only pronounce in certain contexts, especially at the end of words (or h at the beginning).

But those letters still exist, even in spoken french: the verbs in "tu vois" and "il voit" sound the same ("vwa") in isolation, but with "arriver" behind them, they can sound like "tu vwazarriver" and "il vwatarriver".

Comment author: komponisto 14 March 2011 11:45:46PM 1 point [-]

Not to mention the fact that only some of the forms are homophones anyway: parle/parles/parlent sound the same, but they're different from parlons and parlez.

Comment author: prase 15 March 2011 02:24:53PM 0 points [-]

Is there some context where you can distinguish ait from aient in the spoken language?

Comment author: Emile 15 March 2011 02:47:37PM 0 points [-]

Probably not, even the vois/voit example is far-fetched, most people would pronounce both "vwa'arriver", except maybe in a context where they want to put extra emphasis.

Comment author: grouchymusicologist 14 March 2011 10:09:20PM 6 points [-]

Verb forms' frequently being homophones is really not the same thing as their not being conjugated when spoken.

Comment author: prase 15 March 2011 02:19:52PM 1 point [-]

If all verb forms were homophones then it would be exactly the same thing. French still hasn't gone so far.

Comment author: Swimmer963 14 March 2011 09:35:08PM 1 point [-]

Do you know the rule now why you say 'big brown' and not 'brown big'? I don't...I'm very curious though!

Comment author: Alicorn 14 March 2011 10:25:50PM 7 points [-]

The rule I learned in French when I studied it was "BAGS" (beauty, age, goodness, size) adjectives come first. I think I tracked the application of this heuristic in English for a while and didn't notice any obvious contradictions, but I could easily have missed something.

Comment author: taryneast 15 March 2011 07:41:39PM *  1 point [-]

Good heuristic.

Can still play with it a bit within BAGS...

Size and beauty sometimes seem to come before age: "a small, old lady" and "a pretty young thing" and size seems to come before prettiness: "a big ugly brute"

Yeah, more complicated than I'd ever considered before. great find!

Comment author: Emile 14 March 2011 10:50:26PM *  0 points [-]

French is special in that adjectives can go either before or after the noun; I don't know what the rule is but the one you give sounds right (though you'd say "une fille mignone" for "a cute girl", so I'm not sure it's the whole rule - there may be a finite set of adjectives (mostly short ones?) that are allowed to go in front).

In english though, adjectives are always in front, and I don't think the same rule works for their order: "Sad little boy" and "interesting old man" sound like a counter-examples, though your rule would work for the French translation. For most cases in English of "A1 A2 N" I can think of, the French translation is either "B A2 A1", "A2 B A1" or (more rarely) "A1 A2 N", which suggests that the "most important" adjective (A2) always stays closest to the noun, in French even going in front of it if it's very close.

So the rule in English would be the opposite of the rule in French :D (except for when both adjectives go in front of the noun in French, in which case their order is the same as in English).

ETA: this was probably wrong, I could think of plenty of counter-examples to those rules.

Comment author: komponisto 15 March 2011 12:34:39AM 1 point [-]

It's worth mentioning that the position of the same adjective in French (and other Romance languages) can vary, affecting the meaning to any degree from connotational nuance to literal denotation. A general rule taught to foreigners is that placing the adjective before the noun tends to suggest that the quality characterizes all members of the class denoted by the noun, while placing it after characterizes the individual specifically. (An example from the delightful old version of Teach Yourself French that sticks in my mind is savant professeur vs. professeur savant.)

Sometimes the adjective is placed before the noun as a kind of rhetorical flourish, as in assoluta innocenza, an Italian phrase I've had occasion to use.

Comment author: Emile 15 March 2011 07:12:37AM 1 point [-]

Ah, that makes sense, though I can't think of that many constructions where that rule works: "Un curieux animal" and "un animal curieux" mean different things ("a curious-looking animal" and "an animal that seems to feel curious"), and I think that's a one-off rule more than an instance of a general rule.

I suspect some adjectives "naturally" go in front of the noun (those Alicorn listed), but you can put them behind it for extra emphasis; the rest always go behind. With a lot of idiomatic exceptions like "curieux" which means something different depending on whether it's before or after the noun.

Comment author: adsenanim 15 March 2011 07:40:20AM *  0 points [-]

Don't forget that event-related idioms can skew meaning as well...

Comment author: Yvain 14 March 2011 09:53:15PM *  3 points [-]

I don't think there's any justification more interesting than "do it this way because that's how it's done", but if it helps, at least it's annoyingly complicated.

Comment author: Emile 14 March 2011 09:52:37PM 3 points [-]

I think it would be because it's a "brown spider" more than a "big spider", i.e. "brown" would be more important/more permanent/more "fundamental" in describing it than "big".

That would explain why you would say a "sad little boy" and "short sad song" ("little boy" and "sad song" being "closer" descriptions of the object in question than if the order was reversed).

I'm not sure that's the full story though (the explanations on grammar we come up with are often wrong ), and don't know the "proper" linguistic explanation.

Comment author: Marius 15 March 2011 04:59:44PM 4 points [-]

Surely the size of the spider is often the most fundamental aspect? "Don't look now, but there's a huge brown spider behind you." If "big spider" were a species then it's inseparable (as benelliott points out) because it's a species name, but that's a different story. I wouldn't talk about a green enormous chameleon even if I knew that the chameleon was about to change colors without changing its size.

Comment author: benelliott 15 March 2011 11:32:39AM 1 point [-]

I think this work. To test it, imagine if there was a specific species of spider called "big spiders" and one of them was brown. I would then consider "brown big spider" to be more appropriate.

Comment author: MarcTheEngineer 18 March 2011 09:32:32PM *  0 points [-]

Marius makes a good point with the chameleon - Although when describing something as skinny/fat the color comes first (Red Faced Fat Man vs. Large/Huge Red-faced man)

Almost seems to me that we place words that categorize the object closest to the object - Brown Spider/Green Chameleon/Fat Man are all categories of those objects whereas a Big spider isn't as much of a category as it describes the size of the spider relative to other spiders in the same category.

Comment author: multifoliaterose 15 March 2011 04:23:02AM 0 points [-]

Yes! I've had this experience repeatedly in the course of helping international math graduate students with English.