Several years ago, there was a very popular song about a "One-Eyed, One-Horned, Flying Purple People Eater."

In the lyrics, the "line" of the character is "eating purple people," which suggests that the color of its food is purple, rather than the character itself, but the lyrics also say that the character won't eat the narrator because the narrator is "tough" rather than non-purple. Most visual depictions I see show a purple character (which could, of course, still restrict itself to a purple diet).

For that matter, to which noun do the other adjectives apply?
If the food is purple, is it also the food that's flying, one-horned, and/or one-eyed?
If a creature only eats one-eyed, one-horned, flying purple people, it'll probably go hungry. (There are one-eyed people, folks who play only a single instrument that would fit in the horns section of a musical group, and there are blue people, so there may be purple ones somewhere as well, but if all those adjectives must apply to the food that really restricts the diet.) The end of the song indicates that the character plays music "through the horn in his head" so "one-horned" appears to apply to the character rather than its prey.

Is there any general rule or guidance for figuring out which adjectives apply to which words in English?

I found an advice column which failed to answer the question. I even found a question here from the nonfictional realm about a "main plugin file line" in which one answer says "you would not normally encounter such a construct" and another which says "There is a clear grammar rule for this situation" but then "you can decide" about separability, and in a world of fiction, a lot is possible.

It seems perfectly possible that one would encounter adjectives and nouns in various combinations in fiction and it would be helpful to figure out how to parse that.

  • Hmmm. The answer to your question Is there any general rule or guidance for figuring out which adjectives apply to which words in English? is, well, "no, I don't think so." Not if what you're hoping for is an exception-free thing like prepositions must take an object. Especially when reading fiction or pop song lyrics, the seat of the pants is your friend. But if you poke round, you'll find worthwhile musings, e.g. here. Commented Sep 26, 2016 at 2:31
  • Something about this question sure looks strange to me.
    – WBT
    Commented Sep 26, 2016 at 4:18
  • Has this intentionally ridiculous, long-forgotten, 60 yr old children's song kept you up nights? The most amazing thing about this question is that it attracted two answers from experienced users attempting serious responses. I'm not judging (and won't downvote), just incredulous.
    – fixer1234
    Commented Jul 28, 2017 at 20:14
  • I think fun examples can be helpful when trying to learn a new language.
    – WBT
    Commented Jul 29, 2017 at 16:39

2 Answers 2


This song, which is meant to be funny plays on ambiguity. Understanding how the joke works means understanding pragmatics: how context affects meaning.

The "one-eyed, one-horned, flyin' purple people eater" is (of course) something that nobody has ever seen. We are told that it does have one eye and one horn, and it does fly. But there is ambiguity in whether it is a monster that eats people and is purple, or a monster that eats purple people. However since we know that people are not purple, the pragmatic interpretation is that the monster is purple, and it eats all kinds of people. We have no pragmatic expectation of the colour of monsters, so this is reasonable.

Having set up that expectation, the song writer turns it round:

I said Mr. Purple People Eater, what's your line?
He said "eatin' purple people and it sure is fine

So that is part of the joke. What we expect, pragmatically, is reversed. The song is written to be ambiguous. However, normally ambiguity is a bad thing (as it means you can be misunderstood). If the pragmatic understanding is likely to be the wrong interpretation there are ways of removing the ambiguity.

Punctuation can help "purple-people eater", or changing the word order "eater of purple people". Using a category word, eg "monster" can also help

It was a one-eyed, one-horned, flying monster that eats purple-people"

This avoids the ambiguity (but also kills the joke).

There's another joke later on: the "horn" is a musical horn, not an animal's horn. Again the pragmatic expectation is reversed, for the sake of the joke.

  • Hey I have no memory of this. But it's a great answer I wrote. Well done me.
    – James K
    Commented Mar 13, 2021 at 19:05

Well, let's start out by recognizing this is a silly song. It wasn't meant to make sense, but rather to be so outrageous that it stood out from all the other music at the time and became a hit. So you're going to have a hard time finding sense in deliberate nonsense.

Some poets made a career out of stuff like this. A big favorite is Shel Silverstein (look him up) but here's another:

"Eletelephony" by Laura Richards


Once there was an elephant,

Who tried to use the telephant-

No! No! I mean an elephone

Who tried to use the telephone-


(Dear me! I am not certain quite

That even now I've got it right.)


Howe'er it was, he got his trunk

Entangled in the telephunk;

The more he tried to get it free,

The louder buzzed the telephee-


(I fear I'd better drop the song

Of elephop and telephong!)

Of course every language has fun with its own unique ambiguities. English has a lot of homonyms, and it's easy to misplace things like adjectives to create deliberate misunderstanding.

So to answer your question: The monster might be purple, or it might only eat purple people. We don't know, and it doesn't really matter.

Here's another often told to children:

"Antigonish" by William Mearns:


Yesterday, upon the stair,

I met a man who wasn't there.

He wasn't there again today,

I wish, I wish he'd go away...


When I came home last night at three,

The man was waiting there for me

But when I looked around the hall,

I couldn't see him there at all!

Go away, go away, don't you come back any more!

Go away, go away, and please don't slam the door...


Last night I saw upon the stair,

A little man who wasn't there,

He wasn't there again today

Oh, how I wish he'd go away...

  • 2
    The question is about parsing English, and how adjectives apply to nouns. Other than the connection that these (and MANY other works) are "silly" I don't see the direct relevance of one poem focusing on made-up words or another focusing on an imaginary person.
    – WBT
    Commented Sep 26, 2016 at 1:31
  • 1
    @WBT I'm surprised that no-one has yet rolled out Ye Royal Order of Adjectives; see this link. Commented Sep 26, 2016 at 1:42
  • @P.E.Dant Me too. If you see a good way to edit that into the question, please give it a try.
    – WBT
    Commented Sep 26, 2016 at 3:20
  • @WBT heh, well you could always edit in something along the lines of I consulted the Royal Order of Adjectives but that didn't apply either. Thing is, there really isn't any rule. For fiction writers, (especially those in the 19th century,) the only operative rule is Let's position adjectives to be as distant as possible from the nouns they modify, and as tenuously related to them as we can manage, so as to induce in the reader the highest degree of uncertainty. Even Jay-Z has written sentences which cannot be parsed without a degree in Advanced Extraterrestrial Linguistics. Commented Sep 26, 2016 at 3:28
  • 1
    So in other words, you think there would never be any circumstance in which an answer to this question, which builds on a popularly recognized phrase, might be useful in parsing an actual description of something? For example, do you think it's completely unrealistic to come across a description of an eight-eyed three-toed crawling yellow insect eater?
    – WBT
    Commented Sep 26, 2016 at 13:29

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