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What is the rule for adjective order?

This is from the Hound of the Baskervilles , where in Chapter 5, one of the characters is referred to as having "a black, full beard" and "a full, black beard" by two different people.

Which usage is right?

My confusion is whether the first description is good English in the first place. Or is it just Arthur Conan Doyle's literary licence? Further, most characters, including those using the descriptions above, speak good, Queen's English in the novel. This just makes me wonder all the more.

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marked as duplicate by jwpat7, waiwai933 Oct 24 '12 at 7:15

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2 Answers 2

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There is some flexibility in the ordering of attributive adjectives, but the authors of ‘An A-Z of English Grammar and Usage’ prefer the following:

Describing or expressing feeling

Size

Age

Colour

Defining

If we interpret ‘full’ as a description of size, this system would favour ‘a full, black beard’, as, indeed, would I. But, as Bill has suggested, this is not a matter of ‘good English’. The words are not Conan Doyle’s, but those of the characters he portrays, and he may have had good reasons for differentiating their speech in this way.

(Incidentally, ‘Queen’s English’ is not a term that linguists use. Given the difficulty of defining it, it is best avoided.)

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The standard order of adjectives says that size comes before color. However, if you want to focus on the color of the beard, then color comes before size. They're both grammatically correct. They're both good English. The black, full beard phrase is not the norm, but it's certainly acceptable and tells the reader to think more about color than size. Sherlock Holmes would make much of this nit-picky factoid.

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