When I moved from Texas to Seattle one summer in the late '80s, among other impressive sights was that of large numbers of geese on a Lake Washington beach and pier.
“Wow. Look at all those wonderful geese!” I exclaimed earnestly – and naively – seeing the birds for the first time. In my utter ignorance of the details of my new environs, I would make many other equally earnest and daft remarks, about raccoons for example (“How cute! Should we feed them dog food?”) and non-native blackberries (“Let’s plant some in the front yard too!”) my first few months in the Emerald City.
“Yes, Canada geese are partial to this spot,” said my companion.
“Shouldn’t it be ‘Canadian geese’?” I asked as politely as I could, trying not to sound too much like the pedantic English teacher that I sometimes unwittingly channel.
“Nope, it’s ‘Canada geese.’ Trust me I worked for the parks department.”
There you have it. Plus I looked it up in a bound dictionary (late ‘80s, remember?). Case closed.
The population of Canada geese in urban areas has increased over the past 25 years, and while I still smile when I see them – unlike when I see raccoons and blackberry bushes – I can’t say they truly impress me anymore.
But their name still does. Why isn’t it “Canadian geese” anyway? Was the person in charge of naming the species unfamiliar with the rules governing adjectival formation? It's probably not “the exception that proves the rule,” the handy default explanation of any and all linguistic and grammatical oddities. It's a no-fault and simple response if ever there was one, though it is certainly as unsatisfactory a response as the parental reply, “Because I said so.”
The flexibility and adaptability of the English language are some of its most endearing and exasperating qualities. Elementary school students in English-speaking countries – and students of English as a foreign language – are taught that the job of an adjective is to describe a noun or pronoun, and that an adjective usually comes before the noun or pronoun it is modifying: the “white house”, for example.
We are taught that colors are adjectives and taught how to recognize the adjectival forms of words we know; the noun adjective becomes the adjective adjectival, for example. In addition to the -al ending, other suffixes serve the same purpose of creating adjectives from existing words: -ing or –ed, e.g. interest + ing/ed = interesting, interested; -able/-ible, - ful, -ic, -ive, -less, -ous are all common adjectival endings, as is – (i)an, e.g. Canada + ian = Canadian.
Unpack your adjectives
So why not a Canadian goose? Well, one answer is nouns can themselves play the role of adjectives: a car race, a wedding dress, a grammar lesson. In all cases, the plural form consists of pluralizing the noun being modified: car races, wedding dresses, grammar lessons, Canada geese.
What about “notary public”, though? Isn’t the adjective, “public”, supposed to come before the noun?
Ah, well, that’s where the adverb “usually” [see above] comes in handy. While an adjective usually precedes the noun it modifies, it doesn’t always, our “notary public” friend being a case in point. Another example is “attorney general”, which refers to a practitioner of the law, not a high-ranking military officer.
The preferred plural form of these “postpositive adjectives” – Yes! We have proof positive: an entire subcategory of exceptions that prove the rule! – is usually (there’s that pesky adverb again…) created by making the modified noun plural: attorneys general, notaries public. Other examples include heir(s) apparent and poet(s) laureate. But, you guessed it, there are exceptions – for example, the correct plural form of professor emeritus is professors emeriti.
The seemingly simple function of the adjective as a descriptive complement preceding its subject was too simple, in fact, to be true. Since time immemorial – or at least since English could be classified as a language – from pronunciation to syntax, there have been examples aplenty of quirky “exceptions” to grammatical rules in the English language, and odd conventions galore.
The rules, subcategories and exceptions to the use and formation – and even pronunciation – of adjectives seem downright subversive, grammatically speaking, at times. We have, for instance, the adjective baked but it doesn’t rhyme with naked, nor does kicked rhyme with wicked, though of course blessed can be correctly pronounced two different ways...
Adjectives of many types have also been engaging in another subversive activity: replacing adverbs. Our mothers may have tried to instill in us the necessity of using adverbs such as slowly and badly instead of their adjectival cousins (it’s “You are walking too slowly!” not “You are walking too slow!” and “I think she performed badly” not “I think she performed bad”), but they failed in their efforts by following up the lessons with statements like “You did a real good job using adverbs instead of adjectives, honey. A real good job…”