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Noun Order

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Noun Order

Postby Flaminius » Tue Feb 22, 2005 11:00 am

Is there a rule of placing parallel nouns? In a sentence like, "I bought cakes, cookies and icecream," what is the most natural or preferred order of nouns? Shorter words come faster? Is there preference between singular and plural; countable and uncountable?

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countable nouns order

Postby KatyBr » Tue Feb 22, 2005 2:31 pm

I'd say Two apples, three grapefruit, and a handful of berries in that order. note: the progression of numbers....
As to the others? get Tim to give you the best answer.

Katy
hmmm....I bought a dress, two pairs of pants, socks, patent leather shoes, and a pinny for my grandaughter... no I don't have any preferences in other noun's order.
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Postby tcward » Tue Feb 22, 2005 2:55 pm

My only preference is that commas delineate the entire list of nouns, as long as they are separate items.

In the example "I bought cakes, cookies and ice cream", the second and third items look (sound?) like a single item as presented. I would prefer the list be "cakes, cookies, and ice cream", but that is only my preference.

As for the order, I don't really have an objective preference. There are many subjective reasons why one noun order may be more aesthetically pleasing than another, but I'd say that context is the key in those cases.

-Tim
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Postby Garzo » Tue Feb 22, 2005 8:00 pm

I shall not plumb the depths of that serial (killer) comma, but note that noun order in lists is not grammatically significant, but adjective order often is.

One can say:
"The new, big blue house"
but not:
"The blue, big new house".
"Poetry is that which gets lost in translation" — Robert Frost
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Postby Stargzer » Tue Feb 22, 2005 8:11 pm

tcward wrote: . . . I would prefer the list be "cakes, cookies, and ice cream", but that is only my preference.
. . .


I, too, prefer the comma before the "and," but I think that's more of a style preference than a hard-and-fast grammatical rule. Unless, of course, you have an English teacher who prescribes one style over the other. The same would go for word order--I'm sure some style guides have different opionions.

One obvious exception would be when the order of the items in a series makes a difference in the meaning.

The sentence:

"We had breakfast, lunch, and dinner at the local diner."

implies you had all three meals on the same day, or on several days in a row, at the local diner.

The sentence:

"We had dinner, lunch, and breakfast at the local diner."

implies you went to the diner for dinner on one day, went somewhere else for breakfast the next day (or skipped the meal altogether), went back to the diner for lunch that same day, went somewhere else for dinner that day (again assuming you didn't skip dinner), and on the third day went back to the diner for breakfast.

//Larry,
Who many think is rude, crude, and lewd, but actually he's just opposite: lewd, crude, and rude.
Regards//Larry

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Postby M. Henri Day » Fri Feb 25, 2005 12:20 pm

Garzo wrote:... but note that noun order in lists is not grammatically significant, but adjective order often is.

One can say:
"The new, big blue house"
but not:
"The blue, big new house".

I should prefer «the big new blue house» (without commas), unless I wished to contrast the «big house» with other, smaller constructions. In that case, «the new blue big house» (or «the new blue big-house») would get my vote. Are there dialectical (not to say idiolectical) differences afoot here ?...

Henri
曾记否,到中流击水,浪遏飞舟?
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spoken English

Postby KatyBr » Fri Feb 25, 2005 1:37 pm

In Spoken English, the new comes first, then the size, then the color. Garzo was right on of course.

Katy
without commas, the text looks meaningless if one gets into more elaborate adjectives and phrases.
IMNSHO
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Re: spoken English

Postby M. Henri Day » Fri Feb 25, 2005 2:46 pm

KatyBr wrote:In Spoken English, the new comes first, then the size, then the color. Garzo was right on of course.

Katy, that's interesting indeed ! Do you really say the «new big house» rather than the «the big new house» ? The «new big kid on the block», rather than «the big new kid on the block» ? I prefer the latter versions, but when I performed a Google search for «big new kid», I found 156 pages, while a search for «new big kid» turned up 1090 pages. I guess it's four more years for your side - again !...

Henri
Last edited by M. Henri Day on Fri Feb 25, 2005 5:26 pm, edited 1 time in total.
曾记否,到中流击水,浪遏飞舟?
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condescending sarcasm

Postby KatyBr » Fri Feb 25, 2005 3:12 pm

I guess you missed the disclaimer, IMNSHO,

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Postby tcward » Fri Feb 25, 2005 4:16 pm

For some reason, I think that a series of adjectives should proceed from most distinguishing to least distinguishing characteristics.

For instance, in a group of big new houses, the blue one should be referred to as the 'blue big new house'.

In a group of blue new houses, the big one should be the 'big blue new house'.

In a group of big blue houses, the new one should be the 'new big blue house', where then size and color, in that order, would be the most preferable sequence.

-Tim
...not that this really matters a hill of beans :P
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Postby KatyBr » Fri Feb 25, 2005 4:28 pm

Tim is correct of course, and in a group of houses of all shapes, colors, and ages, I'd say the New, big, blue house.

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Postby M. Henri Day » Fri Feb 25, 2005 5:05 pm

tcward wrote:...

...not that this really matters a hill of beans :P

Not so sure, Tim ! I, at any rate, find it interesting that Katy and I disagree about the canonical order in the neutral case, she preferring «new, big, blue house» and I «big new blue house». Of such stuff can investigations of Universal Grammar find inspiration....

Henri

PS : Hope both those new houses contained huge refrigerators filled to the brim with goodies - chocolates for Katy, and red meat for yours truly !...
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Postby Apoclima » Fri Feb 25, 2005 11:29 pm

Henri:
Not so sure, Tim ! I, at any rate, find it interesting that Katy and I disagree about the canonical order in the neutral case, she preferring «new, big, blue house» and I «big new blue house».


Katy's is the only neutral reading:

The new big blue house....

But, in constrast, I intuitively feel (as a native speaker of English) that in Henri's example that there is a "little new blue house" that I am distinguishing this "big new blue house" from.

Apo
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Postby Garzo » Sat Feb 26, 2005 3:59 pm

The commas between adjectives in a list are quite important. Adjectives separated by commas apply in parallel to the noun(s), whereas unseparated adjectives apply in series.

For example:
"The newest Bulgarian wine"
- the adjectives apply in series: the Bulgarian wine is new.

"The newest, Bulgarian wine"
- the adjectives apply in parallel: the wine is new and just happens to be from Bulgaria.

If there happened to be a newer Chilean wine, the second noun phrase would be rendered false, but the first wouldn't.

Analysis of English noun phrase structure suggests that there are four roughly defined adjective zones.

My previous example used a mixture of series and parallel application of adjectives and adjective zones.
"Poetry is that which gets lost in translation" — Robert Frost
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Postby M. Henri Day » Sat Feb 26, 2005 5:03 pm

But Garzo, by employing a superlative, you make the difference between series with and those without commas greater than it otherwise would be. Compare «new Bulgarian wine» with «new, Bulgarian wine». I agree that there exists a subtle distinction between the two phrases - but I find it hard to imagine a situation in which one would be true and the other false. The problem with the use of commas in a longer list lies, to my mind, in that the phrase in question tends to become overly pedantic (who am I to complain, you will ask !) ; to me «the big new blue house» - or, if you prefer, «the new big blue house» - parses more naturally than «the big, new, blue house». If a comma is needed to eliminate ambiguity (as it can sometimes be before a final «and» in a series), by all means place one there - but otherwise the risk is that too many commas may spoil the (alphabet) soup....

Henri
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