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Describing language
Describing language

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1.3 The order of words (in English)

A table showing the different ways to make a noun phrase. These include using only nouns (cats, Peter, Monday, she, they), a determiner followed by a noun (The house, a chair, my feelings), an adjective followed by a noun (Funny faces, happy children, Loud noises), more than one adjective followed by a noun (Colourful bright flowers, incredibly strong weightlifters, extremely tall, sleek, modern buildings), and a determiner followed by one or more adjectives, followed by a noun (The furry squirrel, a hopeless romantic).
Figure 3 How to make a noun phrase.

Analysing the word order in The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog, we can make the following observations:

  • Determiners (DET) go before nouns to make noun phrasesthose shoes; the cat; that house
  • Adjectives (ADJ) go before nouns (but after determiners) and are included in the noun phrase – those red shoes; the black cat; that enormous house

Based on what you’ve learned in earlier weeks, we might also add:

  • Pronouns (PRO) can stand in for a whole noun phrase (see Figure 3 above)
  • Prepositions (PREP) go before noun phrases, to form prepositional phrases – with high heels; in the garden; on a leafy avenue
  • Auxiliaries (do/be/have and modal auxiliaries like must, can, etc.) go before other verbs – I do like; he could swim; we might buy one; you should avoid them

Don’t worry about learning all these rules right away. This list is just here to remind you of what you’ve already come across in this course so far.

Of course, other languages can use different word orders. In French and Spanish, for instance, adjectives often come after nouns, though notice that in French that’s not always the case*. In German, adjectives come before the noun, as they do in English (and as you can see, nouns start with a capital letter – a useful clue for learners!).

English French Spanish German
red shoes souliers rouges zapatos rojos rote Schuhe
the black cat le chat noir el gato negro die schwarze Katze
a large house une grande maison* una casa grande ein großes Haus
the British woman la femme britannique la mujer británica die britische Frau
a strange man un homme étrange un hombre raro ein fremder Mann