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It's always been my understanding that age precedes nationality in standard adjective order (see, for example, The Royal Order of Adjectives); thus, it should be "young Italian adults" rather than "Italian young adults".

However, I'm revising a demographic study and decided to double check this by searching Google Scholar. To my surprise, I found 539 uses of the latter vs. 217 of the former. Regular Google delivers 88,700(!) vs. 1830, and I get similar results with various nationalities and also from Google Books (though not from the news).

I don't think such a large discrepancy could be ascribed to overall misuse, and the "incorrect" order occurs mostly in academic texts. So, my questions:

  1. Is there some reason why the order of age and origin adjectives should be reversed in academic (specifically demographic) texts?
  2. Is that really the standard?
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    "Young adults" in these fields is a term of art with a specific technical meaning, just like "algebraic group" in mathematics. So just as you would never write "algebraic semisimple group", only "semisimple algebraic group", you wouldn't write "young Italian adults". – Tom Church Apr 3 '17 at 12:27
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    Now that you've done the research on word order here, when can we expect a paper? – user121330 Apr 3 '17 at 14:44
  • That paper would be shorter than Watson and Crick's. – Matt Apr 3 '17 at 15:30
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    I think this would have been a better question for English.SE. While there are some aspects of writing style that are particular to academia, they are not usually so specific as this, and anyway "academic writing style" is a vaguely defined and subjective thing, mostly lacking codified standards. – Nate Eldredge Apr 3 '17 at 17:50
  • @TomChurch Is that an answer or a comment? – corsiKa Apr 3 '17 at 21:43
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I speak English only as a second language, and I don't do research that involves young adults, but my guess is that it's because "young adults" is a fixed expression that is very close to a compound word. So it feels weird to split it with an adjective. This would be a good question for English.SE, but I think that we are in the middle of a linguistic process where this expression is transitioning to become a true compound word.

Anyway, it is a common saying that "the international language of academia is broken English", so you shouldn't take academic texts as an example of style. For most academic writers English is a second (or third, fourth...) language, and many write by translating word-by-word constructs from their native language. It shouldn't be surprising to find the wrong word order.

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    In academia young adults also usually has a precise meaning that is different from the English language. Many texts define young adults as adults between the age of 20 and 39. When they define the expression young adult in such a precise way, it becomes a compound word. – shadow Apr 3 '17 at 12:12
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    Linguist here. I think it's absolutely correct that the phrase is becoming a compound. A test of this is whether native speakers accept modification of only the adjectival component. Compare 'very young children' (unremarkable) to 'very young adults' (strange if 'young adult' is more a compound than a phrase). Also noteworthy (though it's probably both cause and effect here) is the use of the entire compound as a modifier itself: you can have 'young adult books', but not 'young children books'. – trikeprof Apr 3 '17 at 12:37
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    Just spoke with a demographer and editor: Yes, as an age category it's a compound. – Matt Apr 3 '17 at 12:59
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    @aparente001 This is true, but it's beside the point in this case. The reason why 'young children books' doesn't work very well isn't that there are already terms for books for little kids in English. It's that 'young children' isn't a compound the way 'young adult' is, as evidenced by phrases such as 'young adult books'. – trikeprof Apr 4 '17 at 16:16
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    I agree. "Young adults" is so close to a compound word that I read young Italian adults and Italian young adults with two different meanings. – Kevin Apr 4 '17 at 17:42
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Consider that the study is quite likely to be comparing young adults from a number of countries. The sentence "The Italian young adults have an average location further north the the Australian young adults" would work if you used "young Italian adults", but it would start to break down logically if you tried to avoid repetition "The Italian young adults have an average location further north the those from Australia" is fine but "The young Italian adults have an average location further north the those from Australia" seems to refer to people from both Italy and Australia.

The adjective order rule is a descriptive rule. When writing it can be treated as a rule of thumb at best. Consider the example in your link:

Have you ever wondered why we instinctively say “the shiny new red car” and not “the red new shiny car”?

Now the following conversations:

  • "Which shiny new car is yours?" "The red shiny new car."
  • "Which new car is yours?" "The shiny red new car."

Apart from the excessive repetition these are more natural orders because the important new adjectives come first.

8

In English, adjective order generally infers emphasis and grouping, rather than the adjectives being always equivalent and conforming to a standard order by type.

"Italian young adults" is probably making a distinction about the Italians amongst young adults.

"Young Italian adults" is probably making a distinction about the young amongst Italian adults.

Academic documents are probably more likely talking about young adult demographics, so the nationality is the more specific distinction and so that adjective is used first.

The above would be true even if (as other answers have pointed out) "young adult" were not a common demographic phrase.

1

A few weeks back, a viral post on "grammar rules you don't know you know" (not an exact quote, but close) showed up on my social media feeds. It was on adjective order for English as a Second Language Learners.

“Adjectives in English absolutely have to be in this order: opinion-size-age-shape-colour-origin-material-purpose Noun." As you can see, you're asking about origin->age->noun, because it feels wrong to you, and the (semi) untaught rule agrees.

The link isn't to the exact article I read, but is the same author discussing it.

0

"Young adult" is probably a set phrase in the literature. E.g. "young adult fiction."

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The Italians have started using this "phraseology" after the last war. Until then there only existed either" children- bambini", "youngters-giovani" and "adults-adulti". After the war, the people of Italy began to create the "mammoni" a new generation still with a child brain but of an 18-40 body, that clinged to mummy (and daddy) purely for financial reasons with full permission of their doting parents. The cynical side of Italians ( the envious working class), invented a new word to describe this new generation. This was made up of adults, (after 18) and men (after 21) and named "young adults-giovani adulti" more as a denigration than a grammatical adjective. It was a bit of a "micky take" that has been accepted by the outside World non Italian vernacular speaking . I would not waste too much time in reasoning as to why some academics have adopted this translation but , I presume, it is always good to keep the brain active! Ciao.

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