Why don’t we say, ‘Washy-wishy’ or ‘Zag Zig’?

There’s a quirky grammar rule that says ‘washy wishy’ is wrong, that’s why!

As you may remember from my Adjectives are Ordered Tip, English grammar says that adjectives appear in a certain order. First comes opinion or quality, then follow adjectives relating to size, age, shape, colour, origin, material and purpose. So, we have ‘the beautiful young Italo-Australian goddess.’ And to our ears, if we’re native English speakers, that sounds right.

But did you know there’s another rule that can override this? You already know it, but probably don’t know that you do.

It’s the rule that makes the ‘Big Bad Wolf’ sound right as well as ‘mish mash’, ‘zig zag’ and ‘hip hop’.

Its name is a bit of a turn-off (‘ablaut reduplication’), but you don’t need to remember it. So, what does it mean and how does it work?

Firstly, reduplication refers to when a word is repeated in phrases like ‘night-night’, ‘bye-bye’ and ‘boo-boo’.

Ablaut reduplication comes in when the vowel in the middle of the word is changed in the repetition. This gives us examples such as ‘knick-knack’, ‘tick tock’, and ‘ding, dang, dong’.

So, what’s the rule? Quite simply, the rule says if there are three words in the repetition, the order of the middle vowel is I-A-O.

Nearly every example of ablaut reduplication in the English language follows this pattern.

So, the first word has ‘I’ as its middle vowel, the next has ‘A’, and the third has ‘O’. And if there are only two words, the first is always ‘I’ and then you follow with either an ‘A’ or an ‘O’. Try it yourself. ‘Knick-knack’ works, as do ‘tick tock’, and my personal favourite from the pen of the wonderful Spike Milligan, ‘The Ning Nang Nong’.

Yes, there are exceptions, the Australian sun-smart ad ‘Slip, Slop, Slap’ being the most well-known example, but this rule applies 99% of the time.

So, now you know. Check out my cheat sheet if you’d like a handy reminder.

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