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4 More Unofficial Rules Native English Speakers Don't Realize They Know

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The BBC’s Matthew Anderson tweeted about a rule that “English speakers know, but don’t know we know.” It was a screen grab of a passage from Mark Forsyth’s The Elements of Eloquence explaining that the reason “great green dragons” sounds better than “green great dragons” is that we unconsciously follow a rule that stipulates that the order of adjectives in English goes opinion-size-age-shape-color-origin-material-purpose. Size comes before color, so no “green great dragons.”

People reacted to the tweet with amazement, astonishment, and thousands of retweets. It can be shocking to realize that we are able to follow rules that no one ever taught us explicitly. But that’s what most of language is: Not the little things that textbooks tell us we’re getting wrong, but the solid ones we always get right. Non-native speakers, however, might get them wrong, and that gives us a good opportunity to get a peek at the rules we don’t otherwise notice.


There are two main ways to express possession in English, one with possession marked on the possessor (my brother’s car) and one with an “of” phrase (the car of my brother). Teachers and usage guides don’t usually give rules telling you why “the car of my brother” sounds bad but “the door of my house” sounds fine, because no one thinks to say “the car of my brother” in the first place. But why not? After all, languages like Spanish and French use this kind of construction (el coche de mi hermano, la voiture de mon frère). Why does “my brother’s car” sound so much better than “the car of my brother,” but “my house’s door” sounds the same or worse than “the door of my house”?

We don’t know it, but we make these phrases with reference to something called the animacy hierarchy. The hierarchy in this case is basically a scale in decreasing order of humanness going from human to animal to inanimate objects. The higher in animacy the possessor is, the worse the “of” phrase type of construction sounds. So,

"my brother's car" sounds better than "the car of my brother"

"my parakeet's cage" sounds a bit better than "the cage of my parakeet"

"my house's door" sounds the same or worse than "the door of my house"

Of course, there are considerations like conversational context and rhetorical effect that result in exceptions to this rule, but it does account for a lot of the difference in the relative acceptability of these two syntactic choices. For example, “city hall” can be conceived of as an inanimate building ("the steps of city hall") or a collection of people ("city hall’s announcement").


There’s a way to emphasize a word in English that involves inserting an expletive into the middle of the word—but not just anywhere in the middle. While abso-freakin’-lutely sounds right, ab-freakin’-solutely and absolute-freakin’-ly sound terrible. There is a rule at work here, having to do with the syllable structure of the word. Essentially, you find the syllable with the most emphasis inside the word and put the swear word before it. Kalama-freakin’-ZOO. Im-bloody-PORtant, la-freakin’-SAgna.

Things get tricky when the only stress is on the first syllable (YESter-freakin’-day? Ele-bloody-phant?) or when there are other, more separable boundaries in the word like un- or re- (un-freakin’-beLIEVable and re-freakin’-poSSESSED, are better than unbe-freakin’-LIEVable and repo-freakin’-SSESSED), but these exceptions can be categorized and explained. The important thing is that there’s a rule, and we already know how to apply it, even if we can’t state it.


In English, when we ask a who/what/where/when/why question, there is usually a slot in the sentence where the answer would fit if it were not a question. For “What did you eat?” the corresponding sentence is “I ate __ [potatoes/an apple/my breakfast…].” For “Where did they go?” the corresponding sentence is “They went __ [to the beach/to lunch/downstairs…].”

Linguists talk about these types of questions in terms of movement; it’s as if the 'wh' word has moved from the non-question sentence slot to the beginning of the sentence. Wh-movement can also happen out of phrases a long way from the beginning of the sentence. “What did you say that the beginning of the movie reminded you of?” corresponds to “You said that the beginning of the movie reminded you of __ [moving day/the weather report/ancient Greece…].”

But there are many cases where you can’t do this kind of movement. For example, for these complex, long distance cases, the main verb of the sentence must belong to a specific class of verbs linguists call bridge verbs. Say is a bridge verb (“What did you say that he ate _____?”) but verbs that include the manner in which something was said (mumble, shout, whisper, sob) are not. So “What did you mumble that he ate ___?” sounds terrible. We don’t make those kinds of sentences because we know the rule, even if we don’t know there is a rule.


English has a group of verbs known as phrasal verbs that give language learners a major headache. These are verbs made of multiple words that together give a different meaning than you would expect by simple combination. For example blow up is a phrasal verb because it means “explode” not “blow in an upward direction.” You just have to learn what these mean. They are verbs like call off (cancel), go over (review), and put down (insult). There are hundreds of them.

Phrasal verbs do not all work according to the same rules. Some do not allow an object to come between the parts of the verb: You can say “Don't pick on your sister” but not “Don't pick your sister on.” But other phrasal verbs can be separated: You can say “Let’s call off the meeting” or “Let’s call the meeting off.” Native speakers know which ones are separable and which are not without ever looking at a rule book. Non-native speakers have to learn the difference through painstaking experience.

But that’s not all. Even the separable verbs have a restriction on them that native speakers never explicitly learn about. Cheer up is separable. You can say “I cheered my friend up” or “I cheered up my friend.”  But if you want to substitute my friend with a pronoun, it must be placed between the parts of the verb. You cannot say “I cheered up her” only “I cheered her up.” For the inseparable verbs, pronouns are no problem: "Don't pick on her."

In the rest of English grammar you can substitute a pronoun anywhere you have a noun phrase. Not in this case. But you already knew that, even if you didn't know you knew that.

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ANTTI T. NISSINEN, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Big Questions
Why Does Japan Have Blue Traffic Lights Instead of Green?
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ANTTI T. NISSINEN, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

In Japan, a game of Red Light, Green Light might be more like Red Light, Blue Light. Because of a linguistic quirk of Japanese, some of the country’s street lights feature "go" signals that are distinctly more blue than green, as Atlas Obscura alerts us, making the country an outlier in international road design.

Different languages refer to colors very differently. For instance, some languages, like Russian and Japanese, have different words for light blue and dark blue, treating them as two distinct colors. And some languages lump colors English speakers see as distinct together under the same umbrella, using the same word for green and blue, for instance. Again, Japanese is one of those languages. While there are now separate terms for blue and green, in Old Japanese, the word ao was used for both colors—what English-speaking scholars label grue.

In modern Japanese, ao refers to blue, while the word midori means green, but you can see the overlap culturally, including at traffic intersections. Officially, the “go” color in traffic lights is called ao, even though traffic lights used to be a regular green, Reader’s Digest says. This posed a linguistic conundrum: How can bureaucrats call the lights ao in official literature if they're really midori?

Since it was written in 1968, dozens of countries around the world have signed the Vienna Convention on Road Signs and Signals, an international treaty aimed at standardizing traffic signals. Japan hasn’t signed (neither has the U.S.), but the country has nevertheless moved toward more internationalized signals.

They ended up splitting the difference between international law and linguists' outcry. Since 1973, the Japanese government has decreed that traffic lights should be green—but that they be the bluest shade of green. They can still qualify as ao, but they're also green enough to mean go to foreigners. But, as Atlas Obscura points out, when drivers take their licensing test, they have to go through a vision test that includes the ability to distinguish between red, yellow, and blue—not green.

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Using Words Like 'Really' A Lot Could Mean You're Really Stressed
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Are you feeling really exhausted? Or have you noticed that it's incredibly hot out today?

If you recognize the adverbs above as appearing frequently in your own speech, it could be a sign that you're stressed. At least, those are the findings in a recent study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. As Nature reports, researchers found that peppering our speech with "function words" is a pretty accurate indicator of our anxiety levels.

Function words differ from verbs and nouns in that they don't mean much on their own and mostly serve to clarify the words around them. Included in this group are pronouns, adverbs, and adjectives. A team of American researchers suspected that people use these words more frequently when they're stressed, so to test their hypothesis, they hooked up recording devices to 143 volunteers.

After transcribing and analyzing audio clips recorded periodically over the course of two days, the researchers compared subjects' speech patterns to the gene expressions of certain white blood cells in their bodies that are susceptible to stress. They found that people exhibiting the biological symptoms of stress talked less overall, but when they did speak up they were more likely to use words like really and incredibly.

They also preferred the pronouns me and mine over them and their, possibly indicating their self-absorbed world view when under pressure. The appearance of these trends predicted stress in the volunteers' genes more accurately than their own self-assessments. As study co-author Matthias Mehl told Nature, this could be a reason for doctors to "listen beyond the content" of the symptoms their patients report and pay greater attention "to the way it is expressed" in the future.

One reason function words are such a great indicator of stress is that we often insert them into our sentences unconsciously, while our choice of words like nouns and verbs is more deliberate. Anxiety isn't the only thing that influences our speech without us realizing it. Hearing ideas we agree with also has a way of shaping our syntax.

[h/t Nature]


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