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3 Instinctive Grammar Rules

3 Grammar Rules that We Instinctively Follow

5:36 min read
  Teri Lapping  —  Grammar Tips
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Most native English speakers are not English majors and have never studied grammar. Most of us do not know the underlying rules that govern the structures and usage of the English language. We speak correctly, even intelligently, and we don’t even know why. 

Language scholars hypothesize that the human mind is wired to acquire and use language, and it seems that one of its clever tricks is the ability to internalize a language rule and then forget about it. 

Here are three grammar rules that we follow instinctively:

1.The Royal Order of Adjectives

This is a grammar rule that we use a million times a day without giving it conscious thought.
The Royal Order of Adjectives tells us that when we list adjectives in a description, we tend to follow a predetermined order. 

These are eight categories of adjectives, listed in the order that they should be used when describing something:
1. Observation/Opinion (i.e., difficult, cheap, likable)
2. Size (i.e., big, little, enormous)
3. Age (i.e., young, new, old)
4. Shape (i.e., square, round, pointy)
5. Color (i.e., gray, black, white)
6. Origin (i.e., Asian, European, American)
7. Material (i.e., stone, cotton, corduroy)
8. Purpose (i.e., wedding, cooking, cleaning)

3 Instinctive Grammar Rules

Here is an example of a sentence with three adjectives: tiny, brown, and furry.

The tiny brown furry dog wagged its tail. 

These three adjectives are placed in a certain order in the sentence, from first to last, according to the categories of the Royal Order of Adjectives:

The first adjective (tiny) belongs to the category size, which is the second category in the adjective hierarchy.

The second adjective (brown) describes the color of the dog, belonging to the fifth category. 

The third adjective (furry) describes the material that the dog is made of, and it belongs to the seventh category. 

We instinctively organize our adjectives according to this Royal order. We probably would not say:

The furry brown tiny dog wagged its tail.

What about the use of commas in our list of adjectives?

Cumulative adjectives:

If the adjectives come from different categories (like in our previous sentence), then they are called cumulative adjectives and should not be separated from each other by a comma. For example: 

The small red flower was growing in the field. 

The child wore an old baggy cotton shirt. 

The words “small” and “red” are from different categories, so they are not separated by a comma. 

The words “old,” “baggy,” and “cotton” are from different categories, so they are not separated by a comma. 

Coordinate adjectives:

However, if the adjectives come from the same category, then they are called coordinate adjectives and should be separated from each other by a comma. 

This can be tested by inserting the word and or by changing the order of the words. If the sentence still sounds right, then you use a comma. For example:
This is the original sentence with commas:

The stingy, desperate man lived alone.

Now we insert the word “and”:

The stingy and desperate man lived alone.
Now we change the order of the words:

The desperate, stingy man lived alone.

Don’t worry if this all sounds a bit tricky. We instinctively list our adjectives correctly most of the time, both in spoken as well as in written English.
Have a look at some of your past writing and discover that I am right!

2. Using Lines in English (not queues or cues)

We call them dashes or hyphens and we treat them interchangeably. We use them all over the place, instinctually, unconsciously believing that they are all the same.

 In reality, they do not have the same size, they do not have the same name, and each has its own purpose:

Em-dash: — This is the longer of the lines and can be used like a set of parentheses or like a single comma to add an aside or an afterthought to your sentence. For example:  

It turns out that Jerry — the quieter of the two — was the most manipulative. 

Maya was amazingalthough she didn’t think so.

En-dash: - This is shorter than the Em-dash and is used to keep numbers separate. For example: 

I have 2-3 days left before my electricity bill is due.
Hyphen: - This is the same length as the en-dash and is used with compound words. For example: 

It was funny to see my father-in-law on the merry-go-round.

Pay attention to these lines when you see them in articles and stories. Check your knowledge: Has the author used the hyphen, the en-dash, and the em-dash correctly? 

3. The Instinctive Articles: “a” and “an” 

We were all taught the rules of “a” and “an” and we have faithfully believed that we use “a” with words that begin with consonants, and we use “an” with words that begin with vowels. 

Easy examples include:

an elephant, a chicken, a man, an igloo

But did you know that this is not the exact rule?
The true rule of “a” and “an” is that the sounds, not the words themselves, guide our choice. 

So, we use “a” with words that begin with consonant sounds, not necessarily consonants. And we use “an” with words that begin with vowel sounds, not necessarily vowels. 

Let’s look at the consonant “h” in the word hour. For example: 

The student had a test in an hour. 

Instinctually, we wouldn’t say: 

The student had a test in a hour

When we say this sentence out loud, we can hear how the word hour is pronounced without the "h" sound and uses "an”. 

Let’s look at the vowel “u” at the beginning of the word unicorn. For example: 

She saw a unicorn in her garden. 

Instinctually, we wouldn’t say: 

She saw an unicorn in her garden. 

When we say this sentence out loud, we can hear how the word unicorn is pronounced with a “you” sound but uses “a”.

So, like many rules in English that we internalize and follow instinctively, trust your ears and not your eyes when you are choosing between “a” and “an”.

We native English speakers effortlessly navigate the rules of the language. Whether we learned them in school and forgot them, or never understood them to begin with, we nonetheless perpetuate the rules instinctively, and interestingly, we are usually accurate. 

Except when we consider the endless exceptions that pop up out of nowhere. But that is a topic for another article…

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