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I have studied in most grammar books that adjectives that express opinion, such as wonderful, attractive and lovely come before other descriptive adjectives. But in the following construction, you will notice that the length adjective short came before the opinion adjective ugly.

Mr. Wilson is a short ugly man.

I am just wondering why the speaker used this order. Is it a matter of taste for a native speaker to say it this way? Or is there another interpretation for this?

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  • @Jason Bassford: The idea that the order of adjectives sometimes depends on the adjectives you want to emphasise is something new to me. I really appreciate your generous comment. Jan 3, 2019 at 5:16
  • I have moved my comment into an expanded answer. I wasn't sure if I had sufficiently addressed your question, but it seems I did. Jan 3, 2019 at 5:42

1 Answer 1

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There is no absolute rule for adjective order. There is only style and idiomatic usage.

Some adjective orders sound odd and would normally not be used. In such cases, there are common guidelines that can be followed.

But in other cases, different orders can be used without violating anything grammatical, stylistic, or idiomatic.

In this case, both of these sentences are fine:

1. Mr. Wilson is a short ugly man.
2. Mr. Wilson is an ugly short man.

However, there is a subtle difference in meaning.


The first sentence says:

Mr. Wilson is an ugly man who is short.

The second sentence says:

Mr. Wilson is a short man who is ugly.

Which order you use depends on where you want to place the emphasis. The adjective closest to the noun is the one that most directly affects it. Other adjectives, modify the phrase that follows.


So:

1. Mr. Wilson is a short (ugly man).
2. Mr. Wilson is an ugly (short man).

Do you care more about his 1. appearance or 2. height?

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