If you’re confused about this, you’re not alone. J. R. R. Tolkien ran into this little-known quirk of English grammar when he first began writing:
I first tried to write a story when I was about seven. It was about a dragon. . . . 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, The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien
“Green great dragon” sounds as strange as “Greek, fat, big wedding.” Neither one works quite right. But why not?
excerpt from: The Elements of Eloquence: How to Turn the Perfect English Phrase
by Mark Forsyth:
[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. And as size comes before colour, green great dragons can’t exist.
If you’re a native English speaker, you probably order your adjectives correctly without even thinking about it. This is a rule you didn’t know you knew.
It’s an obscure, seemingly insignificant rule. But as Forsyth points out, “green, great dragons can’t exist,” and neither can Greek, fat, big weddings.
from: How to Order Your Expressive, Long Adjectives Correctly
by Alice Sudlow
“The alternative, should you, or any writer of English, choose to employ it (and who is to stop you?) is, by use of subordinate clause upon subordinate clause, which itself may be subordinated to those clauses that have gone before or after, to construct a sentence of such labyrinthine grammatical complexity that, like Theseus before you when he searched the dark Minoan mazes for that monstrous monster, half bull and half man, or rather half woman for it had been conceived from, or in, Pasiphae, herself within a Daedalian contraption of perverted invention, you must unravel a ball of grammatical yarn lest you wander for ever, amazed in the maze, searching through dark eternity for a full stop.”
― Mark Forsyth, The Elements of Eloquence: How to Turn the Perfect English Phrase
A team of youthful, design-enthusiasts and vexillologists in Victoria and the surrounding area are determined to one day hold a city-wide, open, crowd-sourced flag competition in Victoria, BC. The city’s current flag does not follow good design and is unknown to most people, which is a tragedy. In the coming months, the team will be speaking with the community about the exciting opportunity to engage in collective civic design. Team members are in contact with city council and are trying to create a buzz throughout the city. The competition would raise a flag above Victoria, representing our city and its people to the world.
Capitalize names of places, such as streets, buildings, parks, mountains, countries, rivers, oceans, and lakes, if the exact name is used.
For instance, in the name “the Empire State Building” the E, S, and B are capitalized because they begin the words of the name of the building. Observe that the “the” is not capitalized because it is not part of the given name. On the other hand, “the” is capitalized when it is part of the official name, as in “The Hague.”
If a place is knowingly famous and designates a specific place, we capitalize the name. The following are some examples: the Continent (Europe), the Hill (Capitol Hill), the Gulf (the Gulf of Mexico).
Creative names of places that do not give any hint of location, but are popularly known to the region or the culture, are capitalized. For example, Tinseltown (Hollywood, California), the South Side (Chicago), the Glades (the Everglades), South Beach (Miami).
The place names with “city” are only capitalized when they are part of the common name. Atlantic City and Kansas City are two familiar cities that are examples.
Some place names are imaginary, such as Madison Avenue, Wall Street, and Off-Off Broadway, and are capitalized.
Sometimes ideas will sort themselves out logically, or could do so, if we would only let them. The discovery of the burning house in the example given earlier should arrange itself immediately into,
At ten o’clock, immediately after Miss Jones had finished her solo, they found the house on fire.
Surely the fact that the house is on fire is of first importance in the sentence.
While we are on this topic, consider this sentence taken from a story in a Canadian newspaper, and changed only with respect to the river’s name.
A well-drilling rig was leaving town yesterday afternoon when it crashed through the South River bridge, seriously injuring two men.
Here we probably have a new record for illogical subordination. Put to use your hours of work in clausal analysis. A well-drilling rig was leaving town yesterday afternoon is the principal clause, the main idea. When it crashed through the South River bridge is a subordinate clause, logically containing a less important idea than that of the principal clause. But does it? Seriously injuring two men is a phrase, logically expressing an even less important idea than that of the subordinate clause. But does it?
Two men were seriously injured yesterday afternoon when a well-drilling rig, on its way out of town, crashed through the South River bridge.
Illogical subordination, pushing important ideas into the background by putting them into subordinate clauses and phrases and expressing minor ideas in principal clauses, bemuses the reader, makes him think his grip on reality is slackening. At last, of course, he decides that the writer, not he, is crazy, and turns on the television set. He may be exchanging bad for worse; nevertheless, you may be sure that he will not read illogically subordinated material.
Proper subordination of ideas in a sentence is often difficult. Its achievement, however, to the degree that sentences become clear, is necessary for the effective use of English.
Summary of Step 3
sort out important ideas in your writing and express them in principal clauses
put subordinate ideas in subordinate clauses and phrases
Robinson, Berton. 1963. 12 Steps to Effective Writing. Chapter 3.
Nobody, we might suppose, would write a sentence as bad as,
Miss Jones finished her solo at ten o’clock and immediately afterward they found the house on fire.
Yet how much better is the following paragraph, written in a style with which most of us are all too familiar?
The June meeting of the Groveton Parent-Teacher Association was held Monday evening, and a large number of members was in attendance. Dr. James Jones was in the chair, and William Hennessey, of the Guidance Department of Groveton’s schools, was the speaker. The interest aroused by Mr. Hennessey’s address was very great, and it was decided to have a series of special talks on guidance as part of next year’s PTA program. The first meeting of the coming term will be held on the third Monday in September, and the new officers will take over their duties at that meeting.
And so on, drearily, until the end. Is it any wonder that everyone goes to sleep during the reading of the minutes?
Occasionally a writer decides that one idea in one sentence can present no dilemma. This person will write,
Lorenzo the Magnificent is known in history as a great patron of the arts. He was the grandson of Cosimo de’ Medici. Lorenzo was born in Florence in 1449.
Here we have the best style of the primary reading books, whose readers cannot handle more than one idea at a time. Try:
Lorenzo the Magnificent, grandson of Cosimo de’ Medici, and a renowned patron of the arts, was born in Florence in 1449,
Lorenzo the Magnificent, born in Florence in 1449, grandson of Cosimo de’ Medici, was a renowned patron of the arts,
Lorenzo the Magnificent, a renowned patron of the arts, born in Florence in 1449, was a grandson of Cosimo de’ Medici.
Which one? Only he who writes the sentence knows; he must make the choice so that the reader may know.
Robinson, Berton. 1963. 12 Steps to Effective Writing. Chapter 3.
Subordination, the grouping of ideas into principal and subordinate clauses in a sentence, is much like the pictorial artist’s emphasis upon one element in his painting at the expense of all others; or like the photographer’s selective focus, by means of which he keeps a certain part of his picture in focus and deliberately allows all other elements to assume an out-of-focus fuzziness.
The use of subordinate clauses and of phrases is a writer’s way of telling his reader what thoughts are secondary to the important idea of his sentence. Here the dreary hours spent in clausal analysis of sentences should come to our help. Indeed, those hours of drill should have come to our help long ago; unfortunately, too few people understand that exercises in clausal analysis are not an end in themselves. Instead, separation of correctly subordinated sentences into their parts is only a preparation for building properly subordinated sentences for ourselves.
A sentence, as we learned long ago, is a complete thought expressed in words. It consists of only one thought; the thought may comprise several related ideas, so placed that their relationship is obvious.
Subordination is both a logical and a grammatical device by means of which a writer makes clear the relation among the ideas in a sentence.
For an example, start with an especially bad sentence, consisting of two ideas connected by and.
Jonson was an Elizabethan dramatist, and he wrote The Alchemist.
This sentence is loose, disjointed, and unarticulated, like a sprawling puppet whose strings have been dropped. Of the two ideas in the sentence, one must be more important to the writer’s purpose than the other. Is he writing of Jonson, the Elizabethan dramatist, or of Jonson, author of The Alchemist? Only the writer himself knows. He must tell the reader; he cannot expect the reader to make the distinction for him.
He could subordinate one of his ideas by writing,
Jonson, who was an Elizabethan dramatist, wrote The Alchemist;
Jonson, who wrote The Alchemist, was an Elizabethan dramatist.
His choice depends upon what he wants to say.
Either of these two forms is greatly preferable to the original. Reduction of one principal clause to a subordinate clause has shown the relation between the two ideas, one of greater, one of lesser, importance. The first step in subordination, then, is to express important ideas in principal clauses and subordinate ideas in subordinate clauses.
A careful writer will not be satisfied with what we have done with the bad sentence. He will probably want to use one of these variations:
Jonson, an Elizabethan dramatist, wrote The Alchemist,
Jonson, author of The Alchemist, was an Elizabethan dramatist.
Now further reduction of one of the ideas to a phrase has thrust it completely into the background as an unimportant, though relevant, idea.
This reduction of subordination ideas to expression in subordinate clauses or in phrases is founded on the important consideration that a writer must not expect his reader to sort out ideas; the writer must do the processing himself. He must assemble his ideas, sort them, and express them in such a manner that the reader will immediately see the relation among the ideas in the sentence.
Robinson, Berton. 1963. 12 Steps to Effective Writing. Chapter 3.
The view from the hill behind our town — is it beautiful? If a writer uses that overworked, vague term, he must at once tell specific things that support his use of the general adjective. A writer must never use a general term unless he follows it at once with specifics to enforce agreement from the reader.
Conrad follows that rule carefully. He says each coolie was carrying with him “all he had in the world”. Then he goes on at once to be specific about the things each coolie had — the wooden chest, and its contents.
In the following passage, from Shadows on the Rock, by Willa Cather, notice Miss Cather’s swift transition from the general to the specific.
Saint-Vallier was a man of contradictions, and they were stamped upon his face. One saw there something slightly hysterical, and something uncertain, — though his manner was imperious, and his administration had been arrogant and despotic. Auclair had once remarked to the Count that the new Bishop looked less like a churchman than like a courtier. “Or an actor,” the Count replied with a shrug. Large almond-shaped eyes under low-growing brown hair and delicate eyebrows, a long, sharp nose — and then the lower part of his face diminished, like the neck of a pear. His mouth was large and well shaped, but seldom in repose; his chin narrow, receding, with a dimple at the end. He had a dark skin and flashing white teeth like an Italian, — indeed, his face recalled the portraits of eccentric Florentine nobles. He was still only forty-four; he had been Bishop of Quebec now twelve years, — and seven of them had been spent in France! (from Shadows on the Rock by Willla Cather, 1931)
The unerring selection and vivid presentation of specific detail in these passages from Conrad and Miss Cather are the goals toward which everyone who wants to write effectively must work.
Lack of specific, definite terms in writing is in general due to four causes — laziness, carelessness, ignorance, and failure to see the general, abstract terms in our own work. As this book is not directed toward the lazy or the careless writer, we will dismiss him at once from this discussion. Failure to see the general and the abstract terms in our own writing can be corrected only by word-by-word reading for revision and by incessant asking, “Does this word convey a clear, sharp meaning?” If not, either seek out a new word, or follow the term with specifics to enforce the meaning. Ignorance is best overcome by careful, observant reading of the work of good writers.
No more remains to be said. Let him who would write effective English read the work of good writers, and in his own work sternly and uncompromisingly replace with definite, concrete specifics, the glittering generalities that sound as though they mean something, but are actually as sounding brass and a tinkling cymbal.
Summary of Step 1
learn to think, speak, and write in specific, concrete terms
The following selection from Joseph Conrad’s Typhoon is full of sharp, clearly defined terms. After explaining that the ship Nan-shan, on her way to Fu-chau, had two hundred Chinese coolies on board, Conrad goes on with:
The foredeck, packed with Chinamen, was full of somber clothing, yellow faces, and pigtails, sprinkled over with a good many naked shoulders, for there was no wind, and the heat was close. The coolies lounged, talked, smoked, or stared over the rail; some, drawing water over the side, sluiced each other; a few slept on hatches, while several small parties of six sat on their heels surrounding iron trays with plates of rice and tiny tea-cups; and every single Celestial of them was carrying with him all he had in the world — a wooden chest with a ringing lock and brass on the corners, containing the savings of his labors; some clothes of ceremony, sticks of incense, a little opium, maybe, bits of nameless rubbish of conventional value, and a small hoard of silver dollars, toiled for in coal mines, won in gambling houses or in petty trading, grubbed out of the earth, sweated out in mines, on railway lines, in deadly jungles, under heavy burdens — amassed patiently, guarded with care, cherished fiercely. (From Typhoon by Joseph Conrad, 1902)
Conrad does not give us all the details; that task would be impossible. He does, however, give us in specific, definite, concrete terms all the significant details. His vivid words place us on the bridge of the Nan-shan, overlooking the foredeck. From that point, we can see for ourselves what was on the deck during the eventful voyage.
Long ago, somebody said that elaboration of the obvious is pointless. Nevertheless, in looking at some of the specifics in Conrad’s paragraph, this writer intends to risk such elaboration. The coolies did not merely occupy the foredeck; they lounged, smoked, or did other specific things. They did not gather in groups; they gathered in small parties of six. They did not merely sit; they sat on their heels. They did not sit around trays of food; they sat around iron trays with plates of rice and tiny tea-cups. And so on, and so on.
This sort of writing is basic to the effective use of language, because effectiveness of language is proportional in large degree to the number of specifics used. Of course, this kind of writing has its roots in thinking in specifics, and most of us do not want to think in specific, definite terms. We dislike intensely being pinned down to a concrete statement. We believe that when we have said a man is tall we have said all there is to say about his height. But how tall is he? Must he duck his head to pass through the ordinary doorway? Is he a foot taller than any other man in the room?
Writing in specific, concrete, definite terms is the most important single principle the student of effective writing can learn.
General, abstract, and vague terms are deadly foes of effective writing. They rob writing of all its vitality; they give the reader the unpleasant sensation of having entered a schizoid world in which nothing is exactly what he thinks it is.
Compare the vague: Because of inclement weather, our trip to Montreal was delayed.
with the definite: Because it rained, we postponed for a week our trip to Montreal.
Or look at these two sentences: The path was bordered with flowers.
and Salvias thrust up crimson spikes from the edge of the circular walk.
Or again: The boy’s jacket was torn in many places.
and Pete’s jacket hung in rags.
Good, effective writing always consists of specifics, terms that convey sharp, clearly defined meanings to the reader, who has every right to expect a writer to say what he means in words as exact as possible. Only specifics can tell the reader precisely what the writer means.