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I read here that there is a general rule to write an adjective order. But I didn't find any explanation if the rule has a specific order for colours, especially for primary colours.

This may sound stupid but I'm just wondering. I mean is it preferable to say:

red and white flowers

Or:

white and red flowers

Or is there really no grammatical rule to obey?

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    No rule that I know of. Often it comes down to 1) which color you want to highlight more (the first is probably more prominent) or 2) which order flows best. (For example, "red and white" flows off the tongue better than "white and red", which is slightly harder to say.
    – ralph.m
    Dec 7, 2015 at 9:25
  • It could be that red is mentioned first because it is perceived to be more dominant of the two colours. So what about: "a black and red T-shirt" or "a red and black T-shirt"? Are they identical in meaning? Is black more dominant than red? Are native speakers more likely to say "A green and red hat" or "A red and green hat"?
    – Mari-Lou A
    Dec 7, 2015 at 10:06
  • There's a definite order.
    – Hot Licks
    Feb 6, 2016 at 20:03
  • @Hot Licks But it's not clear what it is (link lost). Feb 14 at 14:55
  • red and white flowers could be quite ambiguous. There are geraniums that are red and white: red-and-white geraniums. I mean that is, if you really want to be picky. To avoid ambiguity completely: red geraniums and white geraniums.
    – Lambie
    Feb 14 at 17:16

6 Answers 6

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I mean is it preferable to say:

red and white flowers Or:

white and red flowers

Or is there really no grammatical rule to obey?

No, there is no rule, you can use any order you like:

"There were white, red, purple and pale-blue flowers on the table" is correct with any permutations of the colours

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    Also there may be exceptions when we are speaking about the colours of flags. The American flag is often described as being "red white and blue" as are the UK's, and France's flags. How come? Please see this link: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red_White_and_Blue
    – Mari-Lou A
    Dec 7, 2015 at 13:31
  • @Mari-Lou A: France's flag is bleu, blanc, et rouge. I don't know why it's sometimes translated as red, white, and blue rather than blue, white, and red. This seems incorrect to me. Feb 14 at 13:22
  • There are irreversible binomials. The Black and Tans. 'Blood and Custard'. A 'peaches and cream' complexion. 'black and blue'. 'black and white.' While these are phrases fixed from other considerations, a broad-brush 'No, there is no rule' seems unjustifiable ... Feb 14 at 15:11
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In a corpus of about 1.5 million words of poetry I found 214 instances of conjoined colours, where the colours were the 12 commonest colour terms in the U.S. frequency dictionary. Red and white occurred 12 times, and white and red 10 times. A 12 by 12 chart of all the possibilities exhibited a roughly symmetrical pattern of results with one exception: green and gold/en occurred 26 times (the highest total of all possible combinations), but only 4 instances of gold/en and green.

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  • Summarize what that means in terms of the original question and you have a good answer.
    – Hot Licks
    Feb 6, 2016 at 2:51
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    And please attribute the corpus, giving a link if possible. Mar 27, 2021 at 14:11
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From Mari-Lou and Ralph's point on dominance/prominence, I'd probably be more inclined to say black and white cat, e.g. for this fella‌​:

Black and white cat

But white & black cat here:

White and black cat

If the mixture is equal, I'd probably use either order; though with something like black & white, I'd naturally go towards more common phrasing (e.g. we have black & white films/photographs, so that's feel more natural through use rather than a specific rule).

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  • This is a good guide, but you still have to answer the OP's question. I could at any time delete my comments, recently it's become a habit of mine, and then your answer would make less sense. Tie the OP's question with your answer together.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Dec 7, 2015 at 12:01
  • Please delete your now obsolete comment from Gwen's post. Thanks. I think she's a bit peeved with me, judging from a recent comment she posted to me.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Dec 7, 2015 at 12:57
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    @Mari-LouA Deleted & I'll tidy up this answer when I get a chance — cheers for the comment! Dec 7, 2015 at 13:06
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    Actually, I would describe the second cat as "black and white" also, because "black and white" is a strong collocation in English that should not be reversed, even when the white is much more prominent. Dec 7, 2015 at 13:13
  • I'd say: black-and-white cat. As you can have blacks cats and white cats, as well. The first one looks just like my tuxedo Bootsie. Long departed. [sniff]. Yes, the dominant color comes first. :)
    – Lambie
    Feb 14 at 17:14
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In common speech, black and red seem to be dominant: Christmas colors are red and green. The US flag is red, white, and blue. The primary colors are red, yellow, and blue. Zebras and penquins are black and white. We write things down in black and white. Opposites are black and white. Bruises are black and blue. The War of the Roses involved red and white roses. Ask people what color these things are, and the colors will almost always be given in the same order. Silver seems to be dominant over gold: silver threads among the gold, London Bridge is fallinng down...build it up with silver and gold. These color orders are not a rule of grammar, but they definitely do constitute a shibboleth. (Saying it "wrong" brands you as an outsider.)

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  • Stumbling upon your post in the review queue, I thought at first I was reading the question. You give examples of set phrases, underlying the point of the question, but I don't see how this is an answer.
    – Joachim
    Mar 27, 2021 at 15:43
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I hope this helps. When it comes to using more than one colour to describe a noun, it is very unusual to use more than two, with the exception of certain industries which rely on description such as the fashion industry. But otherwise, it would sound odd if someone used more than two colours.

With the exception of "black and white", which seems to be a social agreement that that is the right order to say them, it doesn't matter which order you place the colour adjectives as long as you have a conjunction separating them.

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    – Community Bot
    Feb 14 at 13:26
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It has nothing to do with grammar, it is a question of usage. As it happens, ‘red and white’ is much more common nowadays than ‘white and red’, as illustrated by this Google ngram.

red and white v. white and red

For whatever reason there is a tendency to put white second, as similar, though less marked, patterns are seen for ‘blue and white’ and ‘green and white’. Perhaps a mental association with the position of white in ‘black and white’.

Further ngraming shows red to be dominant over blue, green or yellow, but blue and green to be equivalent and although other combinations show biases, these are less marked.

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