former and latter

There is a particular topic that I have been thinking about, on and off, for quite a while now (and by “quite a while” I do mean quite a while, as in from maybe a year or two ago, or maybe more than that). Well, there are a lot of things that I think and ponder about, mull over and ruminate on, but this particular topic has been playing on my mind a lot more than usual. I tend to find that a good way to stop my mind from clinging on to certain thoughts is to write them down, or to write about them, so that’s what I’m attempting to do with this post. (And that’s part of the reason why I find writing to be therapeutic.)

Before I jump off on any more tangents, let me introduce the subject of my ponderings: lists, or, to be more to the point, the logic or science behind making lists.

Ok, to clarify, I’m not talking about why we make lists, but more how we make them. And in case that’s still unclear, I’m thinking of why we list things in a particular order and/or why things sound better when listed in a particular order – not the practical/logistical side of physically creating a list. (Gee, I think I might need to work on this “clarifying” business…)

I don’t remember how/why I first started pondering about this but I recently got to thinking about it again because of a seemingly innocuous thought: “I just have to put my shoes and socks on and go”. You would be forgiven for thinking that that was in reference to running, but it was actually about leaving for work and calculating whether or not I would make it to the bus stop in time (which I did).

Ok, so two items aren’t much of a list, but I think it still qualifies. Plus, it makes analysing lists a bit easier. Anyway, the reason that my thought train switched tracks at this sentence (and you may have figured this out already) was because people generally put socks on before shoes (that’s what I do, anyway) but hardly anyone would say “socks and shoes” in that order.

I have a theory that there are a few unwritten rules to explain this and other list phenomena. I also have a theory about what these rules are. (I’m calling them “unwritten rules” because I haven’t been able to find anything on Google that tells me how to make a list sound good. There are plenty of sites that will tell me how to make a list grammatically correct, or how to write a useful list, and sites that actually list useful things and not-so-useful things… but none that tell me how to make an aesthetically pleasing list. Actually, I suppose after I write them down here, they won’t be “unwritten” anymore…)

The rules I have come up with are: alphabetised, ranked and syllabic order. These would apply to lists of singular words or short phrases, and a list may use more than one of these rules. Where the list comprises items of more detail, different rules would apply, relating to things like flow and pace and stuff like that – I haven’t deconstructed these sorts of lists quite as much, so I won’t elaborate on these here.

So, going back to the “shoes and socks” example, this list, or mini-list, follows the alphabetise and rank rules (assuming that most people would rank shoes above socks because of worth/value or just inherent superiority). Other examples of lists in ranked order include “fish and chips”, “pen and paper” and dog/cat/bird. For that last one, you may disagree (or you may just think I’m crazy), but the combination just doesn’t sound as good (in my mind) if you put “bird” first – it has to be second or last. (I have nothing against birds, though. I think my mind is just ranking them by size order based on general/stereotypical images of those animals. Of course I know that you can have a bird that’s bigger than a cat and bigger than a dog.)

I don’t think I need to explain alphabetical lists much further because they’re kind of self-explanatory… The syllabic rule simply means that items get listed in order of least to most syllables. The “pen and paper” example could also be used here (especially if you consider the two to be equals … somehow).

I’ve previously thought about possibly testing this theory about the logic of constructing lists by getting some random objects and asking people to list them. But I don’t really have the time to conduct this study on a scale that would be worthwhile, and I really cannot support a study that has no discernible benefit to society, humanity or science. Plus, people might think I’m weird and have too much time on my hands and/or should be doing something better with my life…

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One thought on “former and latter

  1. Pingback: 1158 and other numbers | secret Garden

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