Why “Flip-Flop” Sounds Correct, but “Flop-Flip” Does Not
  • 3-minute read
  • 10th April 2022

Why “Flip-Flop” Sounds Correct, but “Flop-Flip” Does Not

Who’s afraid of the Big Bad Wolf? Well, two of the Three Little Pigs were. But why weren’t any of them afraid of the Bad Big Wolf? And why do we wear flip-flops and not flop-flips? If you’re an aspiring author, an English language learner, or just a grammar geek, you’ll want to know the answer to these questions. Read on to learn more!

Ablaut Reduplication

Let’s start with the elephant in the room: ablaut reduplication. There, we’ve said it. Before you switch off your computer in despair, we’ll unpack this intimidating-looking term.

Reduplication is the linguistic term for a word repeated with either an altered consonant (“fuddy-duddy,” “helter-skelter”) or an altered vowel (“bish bash bosh”). Ablaut reduplication is the ordering of reduplicated words after their core vowels. In English, we instinctively follow the order I, A, O. So, if you have three words, the word with the letter I comes first, followed by A and then O. That’s why we play tic tac toe, not toe tac tic. The bells in Frère Jacques go ding dang dong, not dong dang ding. Our lupine friend is the big bad wolf—you get the idea.

Big Bad Wolf: A Prime Example of Ablaut Reduplication
(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Similarly, if we have two words, the first word is the one with the letter I, and the second has either an A or an O. You’re talking to your colleague at work, and you realize that the article is quite a mish-mash. “Zig-zag,” “kit kat,” “sing-song,” “flip-flop,” “ping-pong,” “tik-tok,” “criss-cross,” and “hip-hop” are all examples of this rule. Although all four hooves of a horse make the same sound when they hit the ground, we always say “clip-clopping,” not “clop-clipping.” Clocks definitely go tick-tock and not tock-tick.

What About Adjective Order?

You may have learned that adjectives in English are ordered in a specific way, depending on how they modify the noun. Opinion—size—age—shape—color—origin—material—purpose + noun is the standard order. So, a handsome large old oblong brown French wooden writing desk sounds correct, while an old writing wooden brown large French handsome oblong desk (or any other way of ordering the adjectives) sounds strange.

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But what about the Big Bad Wolf, I hear you say. Shouldn’t the “Bad” (opinion) come before the “Big” (size)? Doesn’t that violate a long time-honored linguistic rule?

The answer is that ablaut reduplication trumps even the standard order of adjectives. Because “Big” contains the vowel I, it must come before “Bad” (with the vowel A). If we were to add the adjective “rotten” to the phrase, we’d say the Big Bad Rotten Wolf (even though “rotten” is an adjective of opinion) because that complies with the I-A-O rule.

Expert Help with English

If this all sounds rather complicated, don’t panic. Most English native speakers have never heard of ablaut reduplication, but they instinctively know the conventions and will naturally produce words in an order that “sounds” right. But speakers of English as a second language can also learn the I-A-O rule. Just remember our friend, the Big Bad Wolf, and you can’t go wrong.

We hope this blog post has brought you up to speed and perhaps encouraged you to spend more time with the vagaries of English grammar. And if you’d like our help perfecting your written English, why not submit a sample document to us today? Your first 500 words are free.

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