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. Possessive > 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 26 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
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:
- human propensity
- 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.