Why doesn’t ‘tock-tick’ sound right to our ears?

Ever wonder why we say tick-tock, bit tock-tick, or ding-dong, not dong-ding: King Kong, not Kong King? Turns out it is one of the unwritten rules of English that native speakers know without knowing.

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The rule, explained in a BBC article, is: “If there are three words then the order has to go I, A, O. If there are two words then the first is I and the second is either A or O. Mish-mash, chit-chat, dilly-dally, shilly-shally, tip-top, hip-hop, flip-flop, tic-tac, sing-song, ding-dong, King Kong, ping-pong.”

There is another unwritten rule at work in the name Little Red Riding Hood, says the article.

“Adjectives in English absolutely have to be in the order” opinion-size-age-shape-colour-origin-material-purpose-noun. So you 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.”

That explains why we say “little green men,” not “green little men,” but “Big Bad Wolf” sounds like a gross violation or the “opinion (bad)-size (big)-noun (wolf)” order. It won’t though, if you recall the first rule about the I-A-O order.

That rule seems inviolable: “all four of a horse’s feet make exactly the same sound. But we always say clip-clop, never clop-clip.”

This rule even has a technical name, if you care to know it—the rule of ablaut reduplication—but then life is simpler knowing that we know the rule without knowing it.

Rule of thumb: Play It By Ear: If a word sequence sounds wrong, it is probably wrong.

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