Thursday, September 8, 2016

Slaying Great Green Dragons

There’s a funny little feeling that goes through my head whenever anyone uses the word “absolutely” in context with English grammar rules.

That funny little feeling is summed up in two words: Absolutely not.

This is a shocking statement coming from a known grammar Nazi. And while I will fight to my dying breath the current trend to turn the word “literally” into meaning “figuratively,” I will also take the time to question whenever anyone says something “absolutely” has to be done a certain way when it comes to speaking or writing English.

Because there’s this:

 I’m sure many of us have seen this doing the rounds on Twitter and Facebook.

I read it, and had to delve deep into my memory. I don’t recall ever being taught about adjectival order. And maybe I was. Back in elementary school, that little thing that says “absolutely not” can sometimes be a bit stunted. And maybe we were taught it and took it as matter of course, something we had to learn in a long list of things we had to learn.

But I look at it now, and I have to say, “Why?”

Why can’t green great dragons exist? Does mixing up the adjectival order create a different image in the mind? Communicate less effectively? If I heard someone say “green great dragon” in casual conversation, or read it in a book, I doubt I’d even blink.

But some people like to point out the blinking.

But as with many, many “rules” in English grammar, the solidity of the rule depends on whom you speak to (note the discussion on “tendencies” rather than “rules”.

This led me, of course, to the origin of the “green great dragon” phrase:

I first tried to write a story when I was about seven. It was about a dragon. I remember nothing about it except a philological fact. My mother said nothing about the dragon, but pointed out that one could not say 'a green great dragon', but had to say 'a great green dragon'. I wondered why, and still do.
J.R.R. Tolkien, from a letter to W.H. Auden (7 June 1955)

And to the ensuing debate. I wonder if Tolkien ever got a satisfactory answer to his question, other than a pert “because it’s so.” I doubt it.

No comments: