ttt: Does Not Commute

Will Quale defines a category of phrases that he calls "And Phrases." (Actually, he calls them "& phrases," but for clarity I've changed the term a little. I've retained his practice of writing the phrases themselves with ampersands, however, as I'm rather fond of ampersands.) An And Phrase is a phrase of the form "A & B" in which most speakers would consider the phrase "B & A" to be backwards. For instance, "cap & gown" is an ordinary-sounding phrase, but if someone said "gown & cap" it would probably sound wrong. (Not ungrammatical; "I picked my gown and cap up off the floor" is a perfectly good sentence. But the phrase by itself, or in common contexts where the two words appear together, definitely has a specific usual order.)

Other And Phrases suggested by Will, with a couple of mine thrown in:

  • cats & dogs
  • apples & oranges
  • fruits & vegetables
  • salt & pepper
  • arms & legs (also note "an arm & a leg")
  • hands & feet
  • fingers & toes
  • north & south
  • east & west
  • tooth & nail
  • hammer & tongs
  • beck & call
  • sixes & sevens
  • to & fro
  • good & evil
  • war & peace
  • suit & tie
  • love & marriage
  • horse & cart
  • cars & trucks
  • field & stream
  • hunting & fishing

Interestingly, there's some disagreement about the order of some And Phrases. Will suggested "socks & shoes," but "shoes & socks" sounds much more natural to me. And various people have disagreed about a couple of the others mentioned above.

I suspect there are a variety of factors operating in the ordering of noun phrases. Some are parts of common phrases—"cats & dogs" might not be so strongly ordered if not for the phrase "raining cats & dogs." Others are fixed phrases that have been repeated so often that they become standard: perhaps "cowboys & Indians" and "cops & robbers" weren't such strongly ordered phrases before decades of repetition. Semantics may be involved, from societal gender bias ("king & queen") to hierarchies of size, importance, chronology, or other categories. And I suspect that rhythm plays a part as well: patterns of alternating stressed and unstressed syllables generally tend to please the ear, at least the ear of the native speaker of English (or at least the ear of this particular native speaker), more than multiple consecutive unstressed syllables. Since English nouns often have primary stress on their initial syllables, an And Phrase containing a one-syllable noun and a two-syllable noun may be more likely to start with the one-syllable noun, producing the double trochee stress pattern of "salt and pepper" rather than " pepper and salt," which places two unstressed syllables together. (Yes, that makes the first three syllables a dactyl. But I suspect dactyls seem slightly less natural to most English-speaking ears than strings of alternating stresses.)

But that doesn't account for ordering of two one-syllable words in an And Phrase. Steven Pinker has suggested, if I remember right, that differences in vowel sounds account for ordering of vowels in nonsense words and onomatopoetic sound-words—in flip-flop, pitter-patter, and so on, the first stressed vowel is always more toward the front of the mouth (such as /I/, /i/, or /e/) and the second stressed vowel is always more toward the back of the mouth (such as /u/, /U/, or /A/). But in several of Will's And Phrases the first vowel is further back than the second, so it seems unlikely that Pinker's pattern applies to And Phrases.

Will points out some other interesting things about And Phrases. For instance, there are chains:

  • bread & wine
  • wine & cheese
  • cheese & crackers

Also, And Phrases can be names as well as ordinary nouns. In particular, couples are often referred to in phrases much like And Phrases: "Jack & Jill" sounds more natural than "Jill & Jack." Again this particular example may be due largely to the number of times we've heard the more common phrase. But often real-life couples are commonly referred to in a particular order. Some have suggested that the member of the couple you know better is likely to be mentioned first; others, that the more outgoing or talkative member is likely to come first; others, that (in male/female couples) the male is likely to be mentioned first. I'm inclined to think that stress patterns (in the phonological rather than the psychological sense) also have something to do with the ordering. (The And Phrase nature of pairs of names isn't limited to romantic couples, of course; somehow Ted & Bill's Excellent Adventure doesn't have the same ring to it, and Louise & Thelma just sounds wrong.) My guess is that ordering of a couple's name is probably some combination of several of those factors, plus sheer individual idiosyncracies. Further research is indicated.

For a pronunciation guide, see column k.

Join the Conversation