Kaitlyn Dunnett/Kathy Lynn Emerson here with a new pet peeve, one I didn’t even know I had.
Recently I started to read the first book in a new-to-me cozy mystery series. I had been looking forward to it because the premise was a bit unusual and was one that intrigued me. Before I finished the first chapter, however, I realized something was off. At first I couldn’t figure out what it was that kept pulling me out of the story. Then it hit me: the author consistently put modifiers in the wrong order.
I can see some of you scratching your heads. I probably would be too if I hadn’t remembered something I came across when I was doing research for the Deadly Edits series. It seemed like a good idea to refresh my memory about various grammar dos and don’ts if I was going to use a free-lance editor (aka “book doctor”) as my amateur detective. Among the “rules” I boned up on was one concerning the placement of multiple adjectives before a noun. The correct order is so ingrained in English speakers that we are largely unaware of it . . . except that it sounds wrong if we try to vary it.
The proper order is as follows: opinion, size, age, shape, color, origin, material, purpose.
Examples? Correct: That stupid old woman. Wrong (and doesn’t it just sound wrong?): That old stupid woman. Correct: The earth looks like a big blue marble. Wrong: The earth looks like a blue big marble.
Try it yourself. Come up with almost any list of adjectives and change the “correct” order and it’s going to sound awkward.
There are rare exceptions, like the big bad wolf. Strictly speaking bad, the opinion, should come before big, the size. But apparently there’s another grammar rule that covers this case, something called ablaut reduplication. I’m not even going to try to understand that one.
All this doesn’t explain why this particular author consistently altered the order of adjectives in her prose, but it does explain why doing so made her book unreadable for me. That’s a shame, too, because I still think her premise had promise.
Kathy Lynn Emerson/Kaitlyn Dunnett has had sixty-four books traditionally published and has self published others, including several children’s books. She won the Agatha Award and was an Anthony and Macavity finalist for best mystery nonfiction of 2008 for How to Write Killer Historical Mysteries and was an Agatha Award finalist in 2015 in the best mystery short story category. In 2023 she won the Lea Wait Award for “excellence and achievement” as a Maine writer from the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance. She was the Malice Domestic Guest of Honor in 2014. She is currently working on creating new omnibus e-book editions of her backlist titles. She maintains websites at www.KaitlynDunnett.com and www.KathyLynnEmerson.com.