Grammar You Don’t Know You Know

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Grammar rules you didn't know you know

When you read this sentence, do you see anything wrong with it?

  • Tommy sat in Sara’s red, tiny car.

Sounds a little strange, doesn’t it? But do you know why?

Unwritten Grammar Rules

You’re likely sitting there thinking that, while you’re not sure why, it just doesn’t sound right.

Author Mark Forsyth explains why in a quote from his book, The Elements of Eloquence. The quote went viral when BBC Culture’s editor, Matthew Anderson, tweeted it on September 3:

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 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 it’s totally true. Try it. Look at something in the room with you right now. Try to explain it in a way that doesn’t follow that order.

Currently, sitting on my desk is a large bright yellow Norcom spiral notebook.

I can’t say that it’s a “yellow bright large spiral Norcom notebook” because it sounds as though I’m just throwing words out there hoping they’ll make sense.

That’s why “Sara’s red, tiny car” sounds a bit off. According to the rule, we can only say, “Sara’s tiny, red car.”

But we’re not stopping there; that’s not the only thing we don’t know we know about English grammar.

Things We Don’t Know We Know

Before I get into this, “we” in this blog refers to native English speakers, because these things don’t apply to most other languages.


If your native language is Spanish, this rule might have been hard to grasp because it goes against what you learned.

English speakers know — but probably never think about it — that you write “Sara’s car” not “the car of Sara.”


This is something I never noticed until a BBC article pointed it out to me. We don’t use the present tense to discuss things that are actually happening right now. We often use the present progressive instead.

Instead of saying “I eat a sandwich,” we say “I’m eating a sandwich.” You’d think the present tense would indicate things happening in the present, but no, it usually signifies something that happens regularly.

  • “I eat a sandwich every day at 3 p.m.”

And that’s just skimming the surface. We have 12 verb tenses that we use all day and don’t even realize.

And then we have things like the subjunctive mood (i.e., describes things that will never happen, “If I were a dog”) which affects tense. I didn’t know I knew this, but apparently I use it a lot while texting:

  • “I’m sorry you had a bad week; if I were there, I would watch movies and eat ice cream with you all weekend.”


We know that cake starts with a c, but why? Why doesn’t it start with a k? I once had a 6-year-old ask me this question and I realized I had no idea. I asked my professor the next day. Her answer: it just does.

There are things that even professionals paid to teach us to teach reading don’t know.

English doesn’t make sense. Consider this: cake and kangaroo both make the same kay sound, but start with different letters.

The Rule of C

I did a little research and found out about the rule of C. Essentially, we use the /s/ sound if the c is before e, i, or y.

  • Second
  • Circle
  • Cycle

Any other time, it makes the /k/ sound (e.g., cake and cup).

Confused? I still am. And these are things that I’ve known my whole life that I had no idea I even knew.

This is why English is one of the hardest languages in the world to learn.

To confuse yourself more, you can check out some made-up words the Oxford English Dictionary added last week.

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