Grammar Girl Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing

The unspoken rules of adjectives. The rise of 'yeah-nah.' Sundies

Episode Summary

1001. This week, we explore the often-overlooked rules for ordering adjectives in English and when to use commas between them. Then, spurred by a recent shout-out at a Taylor Swift concert in Australia, we look at the rise of the phrase "yeah-nah" (and its American cousin "yeah-no").

Episode Notes

1001. This week, we explore the often-overlooked rules for ordering adjectives in English and when to use commas between them. Then, spurred by a recent shout-out at a Taylor Swift concert in Australia, we look at the rise of the phrase "yeah-nah" (and its American cousin "yeah-no").

| Edited transcript with links:

| Grammarpalooza (Get texts from Mignon!): or text "hello" to (917) 540-0876.

Subscribe to the newsletter for regular updates.

Watch my LinkedIn Learning writing courses.

Peeve Wars card game

Grammar Girl books

| Please take our advertising survey. It helps!

| HOST: Mignon Fogarty

| VOICEMAIL: 833-214-GIRL (833-214-4475).

| Grammar Girl is part of the Quick and Dirty Tips podcast network.

| Theme music by Catherine Rannus.

| Grammar Girl Social Media Links: YouTube. TikTok. Facebook. Instagram. LinkedIn. Mastodon.

Episode Transcription

Grammar Girl here. I’m Mignon Fogarty, your friendly guide to the English language. We talk about writing, history, rules, and other cool stuff. Today, we'll talk about an order for adjectives you probably didn't even know exists, when to use commas between adjectives, and what's up with the Australian phrase "yeah-nah" and its American cousin "yeah-no." 

Adjectives: Order and Commas

by Mignon Fogarty

Have you heard about the required order of adjectives in English? A few years ago, a paragraph from Mark Forsyth's book "The Elements of Eloquence" that described this regular order of adjectives went viral on Twitter. And the concept pops up again every year or so and blows people's minds anew. He said, "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." Now, I've loved more than one of Forsyth's various books — in fact, I should have him on the show — but he was a little, shall we say, extravagant in his description of this particular phenomenon.

First, I'll argue that you sound a bit like a maniac if you say it the quote-unquote "right" way. I mean, who has a knife like that? And further, if you do, who describes it in such detail? But second, do you really sound like a maniac if you instead say you have a GREEN rectangular knife instead of a RECTANGULAR green knife? I think not. 

Now, what Forsythe was talking about is that most native English speakers just instinctively put adjectives in the right order without even thinking about it. You just know that, even though they both sound icky, for some reason, "the ugly brown goop" sounds like better English than "the brown ugly goop." In fact, it's not something we're taught in school, and if you haven't already seen these viral posts, you're probably surprised to learn that there IS a quasi-official proper order for adjectives.  It goes like this: opinion, size, age, shape, color, origin, material, purpose. 

So opinion is something like "ugly" or "beautiful." Size is a descriptor like "big" and "little." Age is a word like "young" and "old." Shape is "square," "round," and so on. Color is straightforward: "black," "yellow," and so on. Origin is like the country something is from: so "a French knife," "a British flag," "an American student." Um, material is a descriptor like "polyester" and "Styrofoam." And purpose is what something is for, like "swimming" in "swimming pool" and "sewing" in "sewing machine."

So given the quasi-official order, we just naturally talk about an old plastic box and a beautiful black sweater.

But let's say you're learning English or you want to remember the order for some reason. The way I do it is that the first letters of all those qualifiers spell something that almost sounds like a word to me — OSASCOMP. That’s how I remember it. OSASCOMP: opinion, size, age, shape, color, origin, material, and purpose.

Now, you actually don’t want to string together too many adjectives before a noun like Forsyth did to make his point, but sometimes three adjectives in a row can make sense. For example, you could write that Aardvark threw his old round wooden ball at Squiggly.

But as you may have already gathered, there are a lot of exceptions to these rules, especially in the physical descriptions — size, age, shape, and color — which is why I call them quasi-official. For example, to me, "the square green tile" and "the green square tile" both sound right. It just depends on where you want to put the emphasis. If I have a wall that's mostly covered with green tiles that are all different shapes, then I might point one out by saying "Look at this square green tile." But if I have a wall with square tiles that are all different colors, I might say, "Look at this green square tile."

There’s also a different suggested order out there that switches the order, putting shape before age instead of after it. I’ve looked and looked at the difference, and there are sentences where one order seems better and sentences where the other order seems better. For example, "the old round vase," which uses the OSASCOMP order, sounds better than "the round old vase." "He sent fresh, long-stemmed roses," sounds better than "He sent long-stemmed fresh roses."

But some examples sound better with the other order that puts shape before age. For example, "the round antique vase" sounds better to me than "the antique round vase."

But none of them sounds horribly wrong either.

The other areas seem to hold up better. For example, "the young American singer" sounds right and "the American young singer" sounds quite wrong.  And "the beautiful wool rug" sounds better than "the wool beautiful rug." 

The bottom line is that if you’re in doubt about how to write your adjectives, there’s a somewhat useful suggested order, and I use OSASCOMP to remember that it’s opinion, size, age, shape, color, origin, material, and purpose. But know that there are times when you can deviate from the order, and there is another alternative suggested order too.

Next, you might be wondering whether you need commas between all those adjectives, and sometimes you do and sometimes you don't.

If each adjective modifies the noun independently, then you put a comma between them. The best way to test this is to see if the sentence still sounds right if you switch the order of the adjectives, and if you can put the word "and" between them.

For example, let's say I want to write that Squiggly is a conscientious, pleasant  friend. Well, I could also say, "Squiggly is a pleasant, conscientious friend," and that "Squiggly is a conscientious AND pleasant friend," both of which sound completely natural. Since that's the case, I do use a comma between the two adjectives. Squiggly is a conscientious, [comma] pleasant friend. These kinds of adjectives are called coordinate adjectives.

But in all my examples in the OSASCOMP section, the sentences don't sound right if you apply these tests. For example, let's say I wrote that "The square green tile fell off the wall." Well, if I said, "The green square tile fell off the wall," it sounds a little weird but it still kind of works, especially in some situations like the one where my wall is square tiles of different colors. But it definitely doesn't sound natural if I say, "The square AND green tile fell off the wall." You almost wonder if I'm talking about two different tiles. It just doesn't sound like Standard English. 

Since the "and" test doesn't work, that's a sign that these are what's called cumulative adjectives, and you don't use a comma between cumulative adjectives. Cumulative adjectives build on each other to describe the noun. For example, "beautiful" describes the wool rug. As The Chicago Manual of Style explains, "phrases such as 'white brick house' and 'wrinkled canvas jacket' are unpunctuated because the adjectives are not coordinate: they have no logical connection in sense (a white house could be made of many different materials; so could a wrinkled jacket)."  

So when you're looking at a series of adjectives before a noun and you're trying to decide whether to use a comma, remember to ask yourself if you can reverse the order of the adjectives and if you can put the word "and" between the adjectives. 

If you have a sentence like "Squiggly is a conscientious, pleasant friend," and the answer to both those questions is yes — you can reverse the order and put the word "and" between them — you use a comma. But if you have a sentence like "The green square tile fell off the wall," and the answer to either of those questions is no — you can't reverse the order or you can't put the word "and" between them — you don't use a comma. 


Are you ready for it? ‘Yeah-nah’ comes back stronger – with a little help from Taylor Swift

by Kate Burridge and Isabelle Burke

Much has been written about the power of Taylor Swift’s poetic lyrics to resonate deeply with her audiences. But forget poetry and literary allusions — their influence pales in comparison to the cultural impact of a resounding “yeah-nah”.

During a recent evening’s concert, Swift’s dancer Kameron Saunders bellowed the cherished Australian phrase in response to Swift’s line “You know that we are never getting back together” — and 96,000 Swifties at the Melbourne Cricket Ground went wild.

It was enchanting to meet you — introducing ‘yeah-nah’

According to the first ever study of this little Aussie icon, “yeah-nah” arrived on the linguistic scene probably around the late 1990s. But it didn’t really come to the attention of Australians until the early 2000s, much the same time as Swift and her guitar began to rise to fame in Nashville. And, just like Swift, it’s not always been plain sailing for “yeah-nah” — a rocky start and a career marked by continual change and innovation.

Condemned by many in the early 2000s, “yeah-nah” was branded with disparaging labels such as “speech junk” — and lumped together with other “unnecessary words that clutter up our language”. “Yeah-no” was a symptom of Australia’s inarticulateness, they argued, and it should go.

But somehow “yeah-no” climbed out of the linguistic abyss — came back stronger than a nineties trend, as Swifties would put it — and won people’s hearts. When ABC radio stations around the country asked their listeners to send in their favourite Aussie slang expressions, “yeah-nah” came second out of more than a thousand unique phrases (it might even have come first had “mate” not got that unfair boost from other favourites like “g’day mate”).

Now a major protagonist in William McInnes’ book "Yeah, Nah!: A celebration of life and the words that make us who we are," this much loved linguistic celebrity also makes regular public appearances — popping up everywhere from car sales adverts to the branding initiatives of condom companies. It’s prominently adorned on earrings, signet rings, necklaces, T-shirts and even features in beautifully intricate needlework embroideries.

What’s ‘yeah-nah’ anyway?

“Yeah-nah” (or its more formal version “yeah-no”) is one of those highly idiosyncratic expressions dotted through our speech. Its functions have to do with hedging, politeness and solidarity, but they're complex and pinning them down is tricky. As you’d expect — it is after all the fall-out of the hidden thought processes of humans interacting with other humans.

Here are some examples to illustrate just some of its duties.

You might want to decline someone’s kind offer of assistance: “Do want a hand?” — “Yeah-nah, I’ll be fine.” To simply say “no” would be blunt.

You might want to agree with a negative question: “So you didn’t get the Taylor Swift tickets?” — “Yeah-nah, we were too slow.” A simple “yes” or “no” would be ambiguous.

You might want to indicate enthusiastic agreement: “So you enjoyed Taylor Swift?” — “Yeah-nah, she was fantastic.” The effect of “no” is to reinforce “yes” by knocking on the head any possibility of contradiction.

You start talking after a lull in the conversation: “Yeah-nah, I was hoping to go to the concert.” “Yeah-nah” strengthens rapport with your conversational partner; it suggests interest or support.

You’re under pressure to accept a compliment, but at the same time want to appear modest. “You played brilliantly today” — “Yeah-nah, I was lucky really.” “Yeah” acknowledges the compliment (not to would seem ungrateful), and the following “nah” effectively softens its impact.

So which one did Taylor Swift’s dancer use?

The “yeah-nah” starring in the Eras tour is one of the newest functions, sometimes dubbed the “shutdown” use: an intense, sarcastic form of disagreement, which effectively shuts down the topic altogether (“Would you give me your tickets for Saturday night’s concert?” “Yeah, nah”.) The “yeah” sarcastically feints at an agreement that is clearly not possible, before the crystal-cold clarity of the disagreement is issued: “nah”. Curiously, this use has earlier and stronger documentation in US English, and only more recently has it been found in Australian English.

“Shutdown” uses have proliferated on Twitter since at least 2018 (and, yes, that an intense form of disagreement should gain momentum on Twitter is perhaps the least surprising part of this story). The strong strand of internet language feeding the development of this function is perhaps why newer studies have found this form of “yeah-no” is used predominantly by younger people.

A little surprising, really — in most other functions, Baby Boomers have actually been documented to be the most prolific users of “yeah-no”.

You belong with me — language binds us

Language is all about communicating (of course), but it’s also about defining the gang — and never underestimate the significance of this second function. Members of Swift’s fandom are known for weaving her song lyrics (“blank space, baby”, “red lip classic”) into their conversations. These fragments of lyrics become a kind of “clique”, or in-group recognition device — “if you’re quoting Taylor Swift, that connects us”.

Swift is certainly aware of the power of language when it comes to creating bonds, and not just through relatable lyrics and themes. She is brilliant at acknowledging local culture and using colloquial phrases to connect with her audiences. And she nailed it with “yeah-nah”.

That segment was written by Kate Burridge, a professor of linguistics at Monash University, and Isabelle Burke, a research fellow in linguistics at Monash University. It originally appeared in The Conversation and appears here through a Creative Commons license (BY-ND 4.0).


Finally, I have a familect story from Suzanne.

Hi, Grammar Girl. This is Suzanne in Pittsburgh.

And we have a familect that we adopted when we used to do laundry at the laundromat, and we would try and get it all done on Sunday. And because we're trying to get it all done, I wouldn't exactly wear my undies because they were being washed.

And so when I said sundies, we meant that that would not -- I was wearing no undies. I'm not sure if you can play that one online.

All right, thanks. Bye.

Haha, thanks so much, Suzanne! That actually made me think of a funny scene that I loved in "Notting Hill," the movie with Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant, where Hugh Grant's roommate, Spike, walks into the kitchen wearing a wetsuit because he doesn't have any clean clothes. 

And you know what, it's a great time for YOU to share your familect story — a word or phrase your family and only your family uses. To do that, call the voicemail line at 83-321-4-GIRL. It's easy. You can call right now, and you'll just hear a little recording from me and then you can leave your story to be played on the show. 

Grammar Girl is a Quick and Dirty Tips podcast. Thanks to ad operations specialist, Morgan Christianson; digital operations specialist, Holly Hutchings; director of podcasts, Brannan Goetschius; audio engineer, Nathan Semes; and marketing associate, Davina Tomlin, who at 18 got a black belt in Taekwondo, but has since forgotten everything they learned. 

And I’m Mignon Fogarty, better known as Grammar Girl. I'll be back Thursday when I'll talk with Martha Brockenbrough about her new book "Future Tense" all about AI. 

That's all. Thanks for listening.