Conjunct order in the comics

Today’s Rhymes With Orange.on love and conjunct order:

So: in coordinated pairs of names, which comes first, and why?

In the case at hand, whoever creates the coordination (here, carving it into a tree) will almost always put their own name first; people are strongly inclined to take themselves to be the measure of all things. Similarly, if you’re referring to a couple of people and one of them is a friend of yours while the other is someone you know mostly through your friend, you’ll probably put your friend’s name first. But beyond that, there’s a complex set of factors that tend to favor one order of names over the other. It seems that these factors conspire in (now well-studied) ways to favor — wait for it… — Guys First.

Background. There’s long been an interest in what have come to be known as irreversible binomials (the term is due to Yakov Malkiel, “Studies in irreversible binomials”, Lingua 8.113-60 (1959)). From NOAD2:

noun irreversible binomialGrammar a noun phrase consisting of two nouns joined by a conjunction, in which the conventional order is fixed. Examples include bread and butter and kith and kin. [+ salt and vinegar, fish and chips, meat and potatoes, gin and tonic, time and tide, cloak and dagger, ladies and gentlemen, knife and fork,…]

A number of tendencies emerge, some having to do with phonology (shorter before longer), some with meaning or cultural role (positive before negative, main thing before accessory, male before female).

More recent studies — pursued especially by Jen Hay, of the University of Canterbury in Auckland NZ, with various collaborators — have looked at fresh, rather than frozen, combinations, and focused specifically on personal names (where the factors can be systematically controlled). A small taste of this work, from a 12/27/09 Language Log posting “Sexual orders” by Mark Liberman, on “the preferred orders of English binomial expressions for gendered categories of humans” as treated in Saundra Wright, Jennifer Hay and Tessa Bent in their paper “Ladies first? Phonology, frequency, and the naming conspiracy”, Linguistics 43.531–561 (2005). The abstract for this paper:

In pairs of names, male names often precede female names (e.g. Romeo and Juliet). We investigate this bias and argue that preferences for name ordering are constrained by a combination of gender, phonology, and frequency. First, various phonological constraints condition the optimal ordering of binomial pairs, and findings from our corpus investigations show that male names contain those features which lend them to be preferred in first position, while female names contain features which lend them to be preferred in second position. Thus, phonology predicts that male names are more likely to precede female names than follow them. Results from our name-ordering experiments provide further evidence that this “gendered phonology” plays a role in determining ordering preferences but also that an independent gender bias exists: when phonology is controlled (i.e. when two names are “phonologically equal”), subjects prefer male names first. Finally, frequency leads to another tendency to place male names first. Further investigation shows that frequent names are ordered before less frequent names and that male names are overall more “frequent” than female names. Together, all of these factors conspire toward an overwhelming tendency to place male names before female names.

So: Guys First.

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