Why “tock-tick” does not sound right to your ears.

Ever wondered why we say tick-tock, not 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.

The rule, according to a BBC article is “If there are three words, then the order for the vowels 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’s another unwritten rule at work in the name “Little Red Riding Hood”, says the article.

“Adjectives in English absolutely have to be in this order:  opinion-size-age-shape-colour-origin-material-purpose noun.  So you can 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 of 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, 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.


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