by Robert John Stevens, May 30, 2016
Today I emailed my good friend Dr. Melvin J. Luthy and asked some questions about ordering words in a list, and obtained his permission to publish his responses:
Q. Should Peter, Paul and Mary have named their group Paul, Peter and Mary—listing their names from one to two syllables?
A. No, not necessarily. The issue is more one of rhythm. As a title of the group, the rhythm works well. There are two two-syllable words functioning as “bookends” to the single-syllable word. It is difficult for us to consider other orders for these words because they are so engrained in our minds from hearing them so much. Had one of them been a three-syllable name, they might have opted for a different word order.
Q. It is difficult to differentiate between how we order:
Peter, Paul and Mary
Sales, Business and Personal Letters
A. “Sales, Business, and Personal Letters” is a perfect example of “shorter to longer” in a list. It meets all the criteria of order and rhythm.
Q. I am hesitant to ask this question again: Why then is Sales, Business, and Personal Letters good order and rhythm but Paul, Peter and Mary isn’t?
A. It probably isn’t, but this phrase has been repeated in our ears so many times that it has become to feel natural. Maybe they argued about whose name should come first, and Peter won the argument. Actually, because there are only two syllables in two words, vs. three, it seems to work very well. If one of them had been three syllables, it wouldn’t work well.
It just occurred to me that it is probably the alliterative “p” sound in the sequence that is the most deciding factor in the word order. It adds to the rhythm.