Sorry, this language is out of order

Being a proud (and irritating) member of the Grammar Police, I love learning more about language and how it works. I always get infuriated by misplaced apostrophes – I spotted two today! – and by the use of ‘of’ instead of ‘have’. Recently, I come across hyperbaton and I’m in love.

I’ve never heard of hyperbaton before but, as you will see, it’s something we use in English every day but probably don’t even realise. I saw this meme and thought of you. Read on any enjoy, fellow pedants!

hʌɪˈpəːbətɒn/ noun
an inversion of the normal order of words, especially for the sake of emphasis, as in the sentence ‘this I must see

Click to enlarge

Hyperbaton is when you put words in an odd order, which is very, very difficult to do in English. Given that almost everything else in the English language is slapdash, happy-go-lucky, care-may-the-Devil, word order is surprisingly strict. John Ronald Reuel Tolkien wrote his first story aged seven. It was about a ‘green great dragon’. He showed it to his mother who told him that you absolutely couldn’t have a green great dragon, and that it had to be a great green one instead. Tolkien was so disheartened that he never wrote another story for years.

The reason for Tolkien’s mistake, since you ask, is that adjectives in English absolutely have to be 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. It’s an odd thing that every English speaker uses that list but almost none of us could write it out. And as size comes before colour, green great dragons can’t exist.

There are other rules that everybody obeys without noticing. Have you ever heard the patter-pitter of tiny feet? Or the dong-ding pf a bell? Or hop-hip music? That’s because, when you repeat a word with a vowel with a different vowel, the order is always I A O. Bish bash bosh. So politicians may flip-flop, but they can never flop-flip. It’s tit-for-tat, never tat-for-tit. This is called ablaut reduplication, and if you do things any other way, they sound very, very odd indeed.

The importance of English word order is also the reason that the idea that you can’t end a sentence with a preposition is utter hogwash. In fact, it would be utter hogwash anyway, and anyone who claims that you can’t end a sentence with up, should be told to shut. It is, as Shakespeare put it, such stuff as dreams are made on, but it’s one of those silly English beliefs that flesh is heir to.

Still, it’s a favourite line of English teachers who Haven’t Thought It Through. The rule is often unfairly blamed on a chap called Robert Lowth.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s