Grammarian and Statistician

Reviewing The Elements Of Eloquence by Mark Forsythe in The Spectator, Christopher Howse notes:

“The shiniest piece of information I picked up is that, in English, adjectives go 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.

This knowledge is implicitly mastered by all native speakers; to see it made explicit is an enjoyable revelation, like learning to carry a tray on the flat of your hand.”


It is a peculiar thing. Four-year-old native speakers do this stuff – or its equivalent, in other languages – without hesitation. We all have a very good internal grammarian.

Grammar - Tomb of Sixtus IV Antonio del Pollaiuolo

Grammar – Tomb of Sixtus IV Antonio del Pollaiuolo

We do not, by contrast, have a very good internal statistician. Most of our intuitions regarding the reliability of statistical outcomes are incorrect. Not only that, professional statisticians are no better than average when asked to make predictions for small sample sizes. Such, at any rate, is the opening premise of Daniel Kahneman, Nobel-Prize-winning behavioural economist, in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow.

He points out that, in crude terms, there are two systems of thinking available to us, one of which works quickly and is good at reaching rapid judgements from limited data (system 1); the other which is slow and costly, but capable of testing the assumptions of system 1 (system 2). System 1 is our autopilot, and does most of the work. System 2 is reluctant to get going, most of the time, but can provide a corrective to system 1.

In the classroom, paradoxically, we spend time directing students attention to each of these processes. One of my students last week said that she felt she was making far more mistakes than on her first day. I told her that this was a good sign, because she was either being more adventurous, trying to do more, or because she was now paying more attention and noticing more. She had engaged her system 2 in an area – language – where she was accustomed not to have to bother much. On the other hand, fluency is a function of system 1, and I spend a disproportionate amount of time encouraging students not to think too much, just to take a punt.

However, the only way you are going to develop an intuition for big red bus as opposed to red big bus if you are not a native speaker is to call on system 2, study the situation, think about it slowly, internalise some examples, and notice the broad pattern (subjective before objective – this usually does for most combinations in spoken English).

Either that, or stick to one adjective at a time. Also not a terrible idea.


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