Great Britain

Mea Culpa: the mysterious rules of the order of adjectives


n our review of ITV’s new autumn series The Singapore Grip, we said that Daniel York Loh, the writer and actor, had accused the show of “recycling racist old tropes about exotic temptresses”. Thanks to Gavin Turner for pointing out that the word order seems odd, and for asking why it should not be “old racist tropes”.  

Mark Forsyth, in his brilliant book The Elements of Eloquence, says that adjectives in English have to be in the order “opinion-size-age-shape-colour-origin-material-purpose”. He illustrates it with the story of JRR Tolkien’s first story, written at the age of seven, about a “green great dragon”, which his mother said had to be “great green”. In which case our reviewer’s order is right, because “racist” is an opinion. 

But I agree with Gavin that his order sounds more natural. The best explanation I can manage is that we are talking about “racist tropes”, and their age is additional information; they are not “old tropes”, some of which are racist and others not.  

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