Why do we say “tick-tock” for the sound a clock makes, and never “tock-tick”? Why “big old house” and never “old big house”? At bbc.com, Mark Forsyth, author of The Elements of Eloquence, explains that native English speakers follow certain language rules every day, but mostly without knowing the rules – or even that there is a rule.
The reason in the first case is that there is a law we follow when reduplicating sounds. “Zag-zig”? No, never. For the second, there is a law that governs the order of consecutive adjectives before a noun. We’re unaware of it until someone takes the trouble to point it out – but we use it unproblematically every time we describe the properties of something. Not following the rules makes what you’re saying sound really odd.
In case you thought that was all, Forsyth also explains why – and how – you can create a limerick that has no rhymes but is still recognisable to anyone as a limerick. Try this at home.