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I'm wondering why certain adjective-adjective-noun combinations often follow a consistent order.

Examples:

Standard Non-standard
The big, blue house The blue, big house
A mean, spiteful widow A spiteful, mean widow
Red, circular mosquito bite Circular, red mosquito bite

The non-standard constructions either look wrong or don't read as smoothly. Is this a learned bias? I have no recollection of learning anything about adjectival order in school, so I assume that any preference is simply because we rarely hear anyone using the inverted construction.

So, to get to the crux of my question: Is this just something we pick up because that's how we learned it, or is there some sort of grammatical guideline from earlier in English's history that governs our way of speaking and writing?

Or a third option; does grammar set the tendency but allow the writer/speaker to choose at their own discretion whether the 'rule' can be broken in order to provide emphasis?

I realize that this is a pretty convoluted question; I tried my best to make it as clear as possible, and for all I know it makes no sense at all. But I've been wondering about this one for a while, and I'd appreciate any answer regarding its grammar, history, or origin. If there is a sort of grammatical hierarchy for adjectives, I'd like an explanation as to what it is (the specifics), and how it came about (the reason for its existence).


Two more examples, primarily supplementary:

Standard Non-standard
A well-built, well-groomed young fellow A well-groomed, well-built young fellow
A fashionably dressed, glamorous woman A glamorous, fashionably dressed woman

I think that these two, perhaps, are reasonably invertible; neither of the options is particularly dissonant, and they don't really emphasize either quality over the other- Is it because both adjectives describe similar aspects of a person? Or is it something else?

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    This question was asked before and closed. Commented Dec 5, 2022 at 15:30
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    Note that multiple adjectives act as coordinate adjectives or cumulative adjectives (qv), and that the 'Royal Order of Adjectives'(qv) has awkward exceptions. // Some have suggested that adjectives describing more intrinsic properties (perhaps blueness is more fundamental, less easily alterable than bigness) reside closer to the head noun. As FF echoes at the previous version of this question. Commented Dec 5, 2022 at 15:42
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    The rule for adjective order is given by an answer to a previous question. To avoid having this one closed as a duplicate, you might want to ask what the reason for this order is. Pefectly good question that is not a duplicate. Commented Dec 5, 2022 at 15:42
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    There are notable exceptions to this ordering BTW, some of which have concrete, well-defined, explanations. One such example is ‘big bad wolf’, which is preferred because it gives a ‘nice’ ablaut reduplication for the adjectives. The primary question though may be better asked on Linguistics.SE, as it’s largely not language-specific (a lot of languages have some ‘natural’ order for descriptors or modifiers on nouns) and most likely a matter of psycholinguistics. Commented Dec 6, 2022 at 1:47
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    theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/sep/13/… "The rule is that multiple adjectives are always ranked accordingly: opinion, size, age, shape, colour, origin, material, purpose. Unlike many laws of grammar or syntax, this one is virtually inviolable, even in informal speech. You simply can’t say My Greek Fat Big Wedding, or leather walking brown boots." Probably the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language says something similar, but is more authoritative. Commented Dec 6, 2022 at 3:33

4 Answers 4

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Melissa Mohr, at C S Monitor, writes:

Explaining the ‘royal order’ of adjective placement

I just finished reading a detective enjoyable little novel. Or was it a little detective enjoyable novel? No, it was an enjoyable little detective novel! The first two sentences are difficult to understand because they violate a rule that native English speakers grasp intuitively: Multiple adjectives must be placed in a particular order.

People learning English must memorize what is sometimes called “the royal order of adjectives” – opinion-size-age-shape-color-origin-material-purpose noun – and then make decisions about which adjectives fit into which categories. Teachers of English as a second language encourage students to remember the acronym OSASCOMP.

[OSASCOMP: (linguistics, mnemonic) Order of adjectives: opinion, size, age, shape, colour, origin, material, purpose [Wikipedia]]

Native speakers are often delighted when they learn about this law and discover how flawlessly they apply it. It even went viral in 2016, when a journalist tweeted about “Things native English speakers know, but don’t know we know.” The tweet attached a paragraph by etymologist Mark Forsyth, explaining the adjective order rule and giving an example that uses all the categories according to the OSASCOMP hierarchy: “a lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife.”

The hierarchy is not absolute, and there is some wiggle room among the “fact” categories – size, age, and so on – in the middle. Contributors to a global grammar discussion board, for example, argued about whether “a new red oval table” sounds better than “a new oval red table,” even though by OSASCOMP the latter would be correct. The order of “fact” versus “opinion” adjectives, however, can’t be altered – opinion comes first.

Surprisingly, this hierarchy seems to be nearly universal among languages that have English-like adjectives. (Not all languages do.) Linguists Richard Sproat and Chilin Shih report that parts of OSASCOMP hold in Mandarin, though only for pairs of adjectives. In Mandarin and English, it’s size-shape, so a “small green vase” is fine but a “green small vase” is not. The Dravidian language Kannada shares size-shape-color.

How did such different, unrelated languages end up with practically the same royal order of adjectives?

Linguists disagree. Benjamin Lee Whorf argued that the order reflects a way of thinking about inherent versus incidental attributes of things. A thing’s purpose and the material from which it’s made are “inherent” and thus placed closer to the noun than its age or size. Drs. Sproat and Shih frame it instead in terms of “absolute” properties, such as color, which are closer to the noun, versus relative properties, like size, which are further away. Whatever the reason, though, it’s a “big black dog” and not a “black big dog” in scattered languages around the world.

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    Fascinating. In your "new oval red table" counterexample, it seems to me the awkwardness might hinge on use of "oval" as an adjective. That choice sounds slightly stretched to my ear. If you say, "new oval-shaped red table", like most people probably would naturally, my ear is fine with the order again.
    – nclark
    Commented Dec 6, 2022 at 14:33
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    'Big bad wolf' uses extremely common adjectives but breaks the 'rule' (O₁S₁N). Then there's the BFG. Commented Dec 6, 2022 at 15:23
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    "Big bad wolf" does obey the i before a in ablaut reduplications rule instead, though - mish-mash, trip trap, dilly dally, shilly shally, chitchat, zigzag, etc.
    – Showsni
    Commented Dec 6, 2022 at 15:38
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    @EdwinAshworth I couldn't tell you how "Big bad wolf" started, but for generations it's been an idiom or a trope or something. That is, correct or not, we've been using that exact phrase that was since we were little children, so it will always sound correct. Commented Dec 6, 2022 at 18:30
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    Something to consider: At least to my ear, and also according to Google Books, "ugly", "dirty" and "bad" all seem to pretty consistently sort after "big" but before "little". So either "big" and "little" don't actually belong in the same OSASCOMP "size" slot, or there's something more going on here… Commented Dec 7, 2022 at 10:34
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Tom Scott did a great video on this a few years ago:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mTm1tJYr5_M

According to the video, there is a "rough guideline" that adjectives should be ordered as follows:

  1. General Opinion
  2. Specific Opinion
  3. Size
  4. Shape
  5. Age
  6. Colo(u)r
  7. Origin
  8. Construction

He admits there are many exceptions and there is no consensus.

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"Why do we ..." questions about language are totally unanswerable based on our current scientific and philosophical knowledge.

The nature and role of what we call 'grammar' in human language is barely understood, and subject to various discussions and theories.

It's inconceivable the even more subtle "why..." question you ask here could be "answered"! One might as well ask: "quickly explain consciousness," say.

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I suggest, the reason of order is that we put more important words first. For example "Big grey wolf". We hear first word "Big" - and immidiately we realize that we need pay attention. If we hear first "grey" - we should listen further and don't realize at the moment, how important is the information.

But in accroding with this hypotheis, first word should be the noun? May be. But may be not, and for life of ancient human, size "big" is more important that the noun.

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  • What about a "big venomous snake"? Commented Dec 7, 2022 at 20:53

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