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I found Adjective order, but I keep wondering if listeners actually understand what I mean when I don't follow that order. For example, if I say, "a lovely long white coat," I may change it to "a long white lovely coat," or "a lovely white long coat."

They both sound the same to me.

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To me, a lovely white long coat sounds like there is a type of garment called a long coat, and you have one which is lovely and white. A long white lovely coat just sounds a little strange. –  Peter Shor Jul 31 '11 at 18:04
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This adjective order thing is quite interesting; I know what sounds right, but defining what actually is right is quite difficult. –  Brian Hooper Jul 31 '11 at 18:25

3 Answers 3

Generally, when using multiple adjectives for a single noun, native speakers will start with the most general and subjective adjectives in the front, and work their way down to the more objective and specific adjectives.

In your examples, "lovely long white coat" sounds the most natural, as it goes from subjective and general ("lovely") to a bit more descriptive and objective ("long") to even more specific and focused ("white")

However, note that sometimes an adjective pairs with a noun to essentially create a new noun, so you'll want to keep those together. For example, "long johns" are a specific type of garment, so saying "long white johns" would sound very strange.

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To answer your specific question, yes, native speakers would understand your meaning regardless of adjective order. There is a standard adjective order in English, as you're aware, but I'd be willing to bet that the vast majority of native speakers have never thought about it, aren't consciously aware of it, and are perfectly capable of understanding a sentence or phrase that doesn't follow the standard order. In fact, some poets have used different adjective orders for interesting effects (sorry, I'm at work and don't have any examples readily at hand).

At worst, it might take someone a couple of extra seconds to parse your sentence, to consider whether (as Peter Schor suggested) a long coat is a specific type of garment that's being described as lovely and white. Some people might take a moment to mentally rearrange the words to the more common pattern. If I heard the phrase "long white lovely coat", I might briefly wonder if I'd misheard, and the speaker was actually speaking of a long white overcoat. Still, assuming I heard the words correctly, it's very unlikely that I'd fail to understand the meaning.

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They all sound fine to me. It's a coat with those three properties. The only place I see order being a problem is when there's a common phrase that makes it ambiguous... e.g. best young friend v.s. young best friend.

American English, by the way. For what it's worth, I don't think people are going to analyze adjective order in great detail, outside of academic fora.

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I disagree ... not worth a downvote because of the subjective nature of this question, but only "a lovely long white coat" sounds natural to me. And I do think I'd notice out-of-order adjectives; or at least, I'd notice that a sentence feels clumsy, and I'd want go back and read it again. –  overslacked Aug 1 '11 at 4:08
    
"A red fast car" or "a fat big pig" are perfectly intelligible to native English speakers, but very few would say either and they sound wrong compared with the alternatives. So while it's true that most speakers won't actively analyze adjective order in great detail, they will tend to notice when it's wrong. So it's something that for example English learners get a lot of benefit from studying if they want to speak well as opposed to just being understood. –  Steve Jessop Jun 13 at 1:39

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