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I remember being taught that the correct order of adjectives in English was something along the lines of "Opinion-Size-Age-Color-Material-Purpose."

However, it's been a long time and I'm pretty sure I've forgotten a few categories (I think there were eight or nine). Can anyone fill them in?

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22  
great question - I had never heard of these rules; always just played it by ear, so to speak, from least specific to most specific. –  cori Aug 17 '10 at 12:51
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"big bad wolf" (size opinion) would seem to contradict that ordering. –  ArtB Apr 16 '13 at 14:16
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@cori - the fascinating linguistic point is that native speakers will have subconsciously inferred a rule like this without it ever being stated. The "rule" is really an observation of what they do. All languages and dialects consist of such unconscious rules. –  Nathan Long Apr 16 '13 at 15:25
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@ArtB "bad" is purpose, not opinion. –  jemfinch Apr 16 '13 at 20:42
    
@jemfinch I suppose the "unrepentant big bad wolf" would satisfy the rule. –  WeNeigh Apr 16 '13 at 21:28

4 Answers 4

up vote 82 down vote accepted
+50

I am reminded of how J.R.R. Tolkien’s mother once famously corrected him at a very early age when he said ‘a green great dragon’. She told him that it had to be ‘a great green dragon’, but when he asked her why, she couldn’t answer, thereby starting him down the road of puzzling over matters linguistic and philologic his whole life long.

This topic is one of continuing research. Simply googling for ‘adjective ordering restrictions’ (AOR) or ‘adjective hierarchy’ can uncover some fascinating research in this area.

In her 2006 paper on “Adjective Ordering Restrictions Revisited” on pp 309–407 of the Proceedings of the 25th West Coast Conference on Formal Linguistics, Alexandra Teodorescu writes:

Adjective ordering restrictions (AOR) have been widely discussed, but they are still not very well understood. For example, in languages like English prenominal adjectives are strictly ordered.

For example, adjectives that denote quality have been argued to precede adjectives conveying size, which in turn precede adjectives conveying shape, and so on, in all languages (5). Similar claims have been made for other adjective types, and the respective ordering restrictions are given in (6).

  • (5) Quality > Size > Shape > Color > Provenance [Sproat and Shih (1991)]

  • (6) a. Possesive > Speaker-oriented > Subject-oriented >Manner/Thematic [Cinque (1994)]

  •        b. Value > Dimension > Physical property > Speed > Human Propensity > Age > Color [Dixon (1982)]

See Teodorescu’s bibliography to chase down related work. You should also look for papers that cite hers (Google Scholar finds 10 such citations to her work), like Lucas Champion’s 2006 paper on “A Game-Theoretic Account of Adjective Ordering Restrictions”, which starts off with the Tolkien example.

Building then on Champion’s work is this English-language paper by Antonia Androutsopoulou, Manuel Español-Echevarría, and Philippe Prévost entitled “On the Acquisition of the Prenominal Placement of Evaluative Adjectives in L2 Spanish”, from the 10th Hispanic Linguistics Symposium in 2008. This one is interesting because it looks at how second-language learners acquire an understanding of adjective ordering when learning a new language:

In this paper, we further investigate knowledge of adjectival ordering restrictions in foreign language learning, by focusing on L2 acquisition of evaluative adjectives (EAs) in Spanish by French learners.

The most recent professional publication I could find on this issue is Katy McKinney-Bock’s 2010 paper on “Adjective Classes and Syntactic Ordering Restrictions”, in which she writes:

There is a lack of consensus in the literature as to which classification of adjectives is directly relevant for the observed syntactic restrictions on their ordering. In this paper, I argue that adjectives are divided into four classes of relevance for syntactic ordering. I propose that adjective ordering restrictions (AOR) are the result of adjectival constituents raising or not raising in the structure as a consequence of their complexity, rather than stipulating that semantic properties correlate to syntactic heads.

and whose extended abstract reads:

I argue there are four classes of adjectives relevant to syntactic ordering: predicative/intersective, predicative/non-intersective, non-predicative, classifying (Svenonius 2008, Alexiadou et al 2007), and previous proposals have not identified the relevant semantic dimensions. Among the properties of gradability, mass/count, and intersectivity, only intersectivity is syntactically relevant. The four classes of adjectives are motivated by the distribution of ordered/non-ordered adjectives, scope effects with certain adjective-pairs, PP-modification, N-dropping and comparatives (Bouchard 2002, Higginbotham 1985, Kennedy 1999). DP structure involves 1) merging the classifying adjective with pronounced N, 2) merging intersective adjectives with N, 3) merging non-intersective adjectives with a silent copy of N.

Finally, if you’re looking for something slightly less professional — or at least, less academic — then in this blog posting, the writer posits an ordering of

  • evaluation
  • size
  • shape
  • condition
  • human propensity
  • age
  • color
  • origin
  • material
  • attributive noun

And summarizes with:

If there’s definitely a meaning difference between different adjective orderings, let that determine how you order them, and don’t use commas. If you can’t find a meaning difference, don’t go trying to force there to be one. Instead, go by the adjective-ordering hierarchy, and don’t use commas. If more than one adjective has the same kind of meaning in the hierarchy, then use commas, or ands or buts if the adjectives have contrastive meanings.

There’s a lot more out there on this topic.

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1  
A shiny big diamond versus a big shiny diamond? –  Joe Z. Apr 16 '13 at 18:33
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@JoeZ. I'd read "shiny" as being a condition, so my choice would be "big shiny diamond". –  jjt Apr 16 '13 at 19:44
    
Reminds me of the BANGS adjectives in French –  Mehrdad Apr 16 '13 at 23:25
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@Mehrdad except BANGS is whether the adjective goes before or after the noun, whereas AOR seems to be the order of the adjectives relative to each other. –  Jonathan Chan Apr 17 '13 at 0:56

Michael Swan (Practical English Usage, Oxford University Press, 1997) writes:

"Unfortunately, the rules for adjective order are very complicated, and different grammars disagree about the details" p. 8

He does, however, go on to list some of the most important rules:

  1. Adjectives of colour, origin, material and purpose usually go in that order.

    • Colour-origin-material-purpose-noun
    • red Spanish leather riding boots
    • A brown German beer mug
    • A Venetian glass flower vase

  2. Other adjectives usually go before words of colour, origin, material and purpose. It is impossible to give exact rules, but adjectives of size, length and height often come first.

    • The round glass table (NOT the glass round table)
    • A big, modern brick house (NOT a modern, big brick house)
    • Long, flexible steel poles
    • A tall, ancient oak-tree

  3. Adjectives which express judgements or attitudes usually come before all others. Examples are lovely, definite, pure, absolute, extreme, perfect, wonderful, silly.

    • A lovely, long, cool drink
    • Who's that silly fat man over there?

  4. Numbers usually go before adjectives.

    • Six large eggs
    • The second big shock

    First, next and last most often go before one, two, three etc.

    • The first three days
    • My last two jobs."

pp. 8-9

He does not mention age, which would normally go after adjectives of size, length and height, but before colour, origin, material and purpose.

  • A big old straw hat.
  • A charming young university student.

Thus, a complete list could be:

(article) + number + judgement/attitude + size, length, height + age + colour + origin + material + purpose + noun

  • a lovely long black leather coat
  • a valuable Dutch Impressionist painting
  • a rustic old stone holiday cottage

[Reference: BritishCouncil.org]

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10  
+1 very comprehensive answer! –  cori Aug 17 '10 at 12:52
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Yes, a good answer. Part of the problem is that this is not usually taught to English speakers because (unlike some so-called rules) it doesn't need to be: it's an example of a rule which really is in native English. The downside of this is that most English speakers are not aware there even are rules, and can't explain them to foreign learners. –  Colin Fine Aug 17 '10 at 15:52
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Note that the purpose words above (riding, beer, and flower) are not strictly adjectives. Even "riding", which as a participle is adjective-ish, is really more of a gerund: the boots are not actually riding; they are for riding, which is an activity. So perhaps a modification of the rule is that descriptive nouns follow all the true adjectives. –  moioci Aug 17 '10 at 21:02
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@moloci You are talking about noun adjuncts (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Noun_adjunct). They used to also be called adjectival nouns, which illustrates that it is common to connect them to adjectives. Although they have superficial qualities that seem to be the same as adjectives, you are right that they don't behave identically. Interestingly, in German, things that would be noun adjuncts in English are generally orthographically combined with the main noun to make a compound word. That is why you get those long-looking German words. –  Kosmonaut Aug 18 '10 at 15:30
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Thanks for this question and answer. As a native English speaker, I have been doing this for years without realising it, as Colin Fine points out. –  Brian Hooper Mar 2 '11 at 15:51

The order in which native English speakers generally use adjectives is called the Royal Order of Adjectives.

The Royal Order of Adjectives is as follows.

  1. Determiners (e.g. the, this)
  2. Observations
  3. Size
  4. Shape
  5. Age
  6. Color
  7. Nationality
  8. Material
  9. Type

For example, we could say

Joyce Carol Oates is the [determiner] premier [observation] American [nationality] novel [type] writer.

You can read more about the Royal Order of Adjectives here: http://zencomma.wordpress.com/2011/07/27/those-adjectives-need-a-comma/.

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To show how complicated this topic is, I think "The Royal Order of Adjectives" is slightly wrong. Age goes before shape. Consider this ngram. (If you have adjectives for age, size, and shape, my Ngram skills are not sufficient to determine the usual order empirically, but I would definitely say big old rectangular building.) –  Peter Shor Nov 25 '11 at 17:41
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Possibly "The Royal Order of Adjectives" was confused by the adjectives thin, fat, tall, short, which seem to count as adjectives of size and not shape (but come after plain adjectives of size like big and small). –  Peter Shor Nov 25 '11 at 19:06
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I object with anything named "royal", as well as the notion of king- or queendom. –  David Rivers Nov 28 '11 at 9:39
    
@Peter Shor: I don't for one moment believe these "orders of precedence" are either universally applied or internally consistent. But your NGram uses what seem to me quirky pairings. The more "natural" round young face seems like proof enough to me that shape goes before age. –  FumbleFingers Dec 13 '11 at 22:19
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There are far more fat old women than old fat women. –  FumbleFingers Dec 14 '11 at 14:01

The European Union distinguishes between "Scottish Smoked Salmon" and "Smoked Scottish Salmon", the former indicating where the fish was smoked, and the latter indicating where the fish was caught/bred.

The rule seems to be that the locative adjective directly precedes the noun or verb it refers to.

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