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?

  • 33
    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
  • 13
    @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
  • 1
    For grammatical explanation please refer to this one - ell.stackexchange.com/a/65027/3463 – Man_From_India Sep 8 '15 at 2:08
  • 1
    Is this a English language thing? or do other languages have a similar rule? – mcfedr Sep 6 '16 at 8:39
  • 1
    @NathanLong ..and CAN there be a rule !? ' old Chinese wine and ' Chinese old wine' are both grammatically correct - and have different meanings. – ARi Jan 23 '17 at 13:53
up vote 172 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. 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 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.

  • 2
    A shiny big diamond versus a big shiny diamond? – Joe Z. Apr 16 '13 at 18:33
  • 5
    @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
  • 3
    @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
  • 1
    If there are great dragons and minor dragons, you certainly can talk about a green great dragon, especially if most of the great dragons are red. – Drew Jan 23 '17 at 20:27

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]

  • 26
    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
  • 2
    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
  • 13
    @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
  • 5
    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
  • 3
    Some of those examples are a bit disingenuous. For example, it would be perfectly possible to speak of a modern, big brick house if the house was made of big bricks. Many of the words in these lists aren't actually adjectives - they're nouns, and if those nouns are themselves modified by other elements within the list, such modifiers invariably come immediately before the noun. – FumbleFingers Dec 13 '11 at 23:27

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/.

  • 5
    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
  • 1
    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
  • 3
    I object with anything named "royal", as well as the notion of king- or queendom. – David Rivers Nov 28 '11 at 9:39
  • 2
    There are far more fat old women than old fat women. – FumbleFingers Dec 14 '11 at 14:01
  • 2
    I think this just means that there is no one ordering, it just simply happens to be the case that, only most of the time, such an ordering is followed. Which is, if nothing else, just a sign of things to come for both ESL folks and NLP. – Steven Lu Mar 17 '15 at 2:53

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.

  • I like to view these with parenthesis. (Scottish (Smoked Salmon)) is Smoked Salmon primarily but is also Scottish, while (Smoked (Scottish Salmon)) is Scottish Salmon primarily but is also Smoked. – Aaron Franke Oct 17 at 2:26
  • @AaronFranke Really? Well that would give you the opposite meaning to the meaning I thought it had. In my head, I parse the phrases as "Scottish–smoked salmon" and "smoked Scottish–salmon". – Nicholas Shanks Oct 17 at 13:27

Without going into details, the general principle seems to be that the more intrinsic or essential the quality of the object is, the closer to the noun the adjective should be, and the more accidental, the further away from it.

a beautiful, new, red, American, sports car

To help understand the idea of intrinsic/essential quality versus accidental quality, think of changing those qualities — think of Harold Chasen in Harold and Maude (a 1971 film by Hal Ashby) turning a Jaguar E-Type into a hearse.

The less essential the quality, the easier the transformation: beautiful is a matter of opinion, so you only have to ask another person to change the adjective, from new to as good as new, a little dent is enough, from red to any other colour, a little coat of paint, from American to Italian or Japanese, serious body modifications are needed, from sports car to hatchback, drastic modifications of body, engine, etc.

  • I think this is not well-defined, and the example is picked to fit the narrative. It's easy to find examples to the contrary. Especially regarding size and nationality. But we don't even need to do that, we can stick with your example. By your reasoning, as time passes the new red car turns into a red old car. And it makes no difference at all if I say it's a big fat car or a fat big car. – RegDwigнt Mar 19 '16 at 22:54
  • There's something to this, though. It might not be "intrinsic" but how specific to the object the adjective is, eg practically anything can be beautiful but only a handful of things can be "sports" things, etc. – Isaac Lubow Oct 23 '16 at 6:58

protected by tchrist Aug 13 '14 at 14:44

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality or spam answers that had to be removed, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site (the association bonus does not count).

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.