We may have more than one adjective in front of a noun.
A big black Italian car
In English there is a fixed order of adjectives.
1. Opinion 2. Size 3. Physical quality 4. Shape 5. Age 6. Colour 7. Origin/nationality 8. Material 9. Type 10. Purpose
You would not write *an old nice little lady – a nice little old lady sounds much better (for the use of the asterisk see the comment at the end of this text).
Native English speakers automatically put adjectives in this fixed order, but non-native users of English usually don’t know the rule.
We should remember, of course, that we seldom use a long row of adjectives before a noun – usually only one or two, and then they are often combined with and or but: It was a dark and rainy night. They stayed at a cheap but comfortable hotel.
Why do we say big bad wolf? Bad is an opinion and should come before big (size). But there is another rule that says that vowels follow the order i–a–o. Think of words such as riff-raff, zig-zag, tip-top, flip-flop or hip-hop. Therefore, we say big bad wolf and not *bad big wolf.
In an earlier blog post we looked at compounds and and noted that some are written with one or two hyphens. Here are a few examples:
Brother-in-law (your sister’s husband or your wife’s or husband’s brother) Runner-up (one who finishes in second place) Cul-de-sac (a street that is closed at one end) Editor-in-chief (the manager of an editorial staff)
How should you write the plural form of such compounds? The answer is fairly logical: add the plural -s to the main part of the compound, the significant part.
Brothers-in-law Runners-up Editors-in-chief
Cul-de-sac has two plural forms: culs-de-sac or cul-de-sacs
When we write the genitive form, the -s comes at the end when we talk about people:
My brother-in-law’s new car The editor-in-chief’s wife
However, you can also write
The wife of the editor-in-chief
When we talk about things, we use the genitive form with of:
As we have seen in another blog post, the -ing form, the present continuous, indicates that something is going on just for the moment.
I’m writing an email on the balcony (momentarily). He writes articles for monthly magazines (a regular activity).
He is living in France (temporarily). I live in Sweden (Sweden is my home country).
To say that someone is only temporarily in a place, the verb stay is often used.
He is staying at a small hotel in Lyon.
Non-native speakers of English whose mother tongue only has the present simple sometimes tend to overuse the present continuous when they speak English, since they believe that to be the common form. Even if they intend to convey a permanent state, they may say or write sentences such as the following (for the use of the asterisk read at the end of this text):
*I’m travelling to work by bus every morning all year round. (Since this is what happens regularly you should say I travel to work by bus every morning.)
*He is designing cars. (This is his permanent job, hence the correct sentence would be He designs cars.)
*They are playing golf every weekend. (This is a habit, so it should be They play golf every weekend.)
*That book is costing nine dollars. (That is a fixed price, so the correct version is That book costs nine dollars.)
*They are making washing machines. (Unless this is a temporary production and they normally make refrigerators, we must write They make washing machines.)
You should think twice before using the -ing form in English!
Was and were are past forms of the verb be, an irregular verb that is extremely common.
We use was in the first person singular (I) and the third person singular (he, she, it):
I was tired and sat down in my favorite armchair. She was in the kitchen when there was a knock on the door. It was the first Tuesday in April.
The other persons take the form were:
Were you happy with the result? We were together. They were down by the river.
Was and were are also auxiliary verbs, that is, they are followed by another verb:
I was having a nap when you called. Was he really doing that? I thought you were going to help her.
It is possible to use were also with I, he, she and it. We do so in situations that are not real. It can be a hypothetical situation (usually with the word if):
Even if he were my boss, I wouldn’t do it. If I were you, I would definitely accept the offer. If this were true, you could stay there for a whole month.
It can be wishful thinking:
I wish I were in Rome again. How I wish that she were here!
This form of the verb is called the subjunctive mood. The were form with you, we and they is also subjunctive in hypothetical or counterfactual statements, even if it does not differ from the indicative form used in ordinary sentences:
If they were younger, I would offer them a job (subjunctive). They were already there when I arrived (indicative).
You should avoid writing *I wish that she was here. (For the use of the asterisk, read at the end of this text.)
When we write about a person, it is sometimes not clear whether we refer to a man or a woman. Words such as somebody or person are neutral and can refer to either gender. That causes a problem for instance when we need to use a pronoun in the singular and still want to be gender-neutral.
One way is to write he or she and his or her or he/she and his/her.
Somebody left his or her umbrella on the train. The preferences a person has about what he/she does should be taken into account.
However, writing he or she, etc., looks a bit clumsy. Using they even if we talk about one person is nowadays generally accepted also by most style guides.
Somebody left their umbrella on the train. Why would anybody want to end their life? Each child played with their own toys. Every teacher used their own method.
In fact, they has been used in the singular (in writing) since the 14th century.
We can use the singular form themself if we refer to one person (and themselves is also correct).
Everybody must look after themself (or themselves). It’s all about letting someone be themself. (Cambridge Dictionary)
To language purists the singular form themself may seem unnatural. However, it was used in English as early as the 1300s and there are examples from Emily Dickinson and F. Scott Fitzgerald well over a hundred years ago. Even if themself is still seen by a majority as nonstandard, the word is gaining popularity. And it is practical. After all, we write yourself and yourselves.
They is nowadays sometimes used to refer to a person whose gender is nonbinary, that is, who wants to be identified as neither male nor female. This use may still sound strange to many people.
Kim, our new coworker, wants to be referred to as they. Sam drinks their coffee without sugar.
They was Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Year 2019.
Traditionallly, he used to refer to a person whose gender was unknown, but that use has come to be seen as sexist. Now some writers seem to want to counteract male dominance by using only the female forms she and her even when the reference may be to a neutral word such as person.
How can a person make sure that her views are taken into consideration?
To sum up, use they (and them, their) when the gender of the person referred to is unknown or irrelevant.
Avoid writing combined forms such as s/he or (s)he.
You can read about the use of gender-neutral titles here.
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