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What is the rule for adjective order?

As a Dutch schoolboy, during English grammar lessons (long ago...) I got one rule hammered into my head like a mantra: time before place:

In the 1930s, in England, nobody prepared for war.

But as I gradually got more fluent in English I started to wonder whether this "rule" really made sense. Let me change the sentence a bit:

In the 1930s, in England, nobody prepared for war, whereas in the 17th and 18th centuries everybody did.

Correct grammar, right? (Let history.stackexchange challenge the historical truth). But I think it makes sense to say

In England, in the 1930s nobody prepared for war, whereas in the 17th and 18th centuries everybody did.

because it emphasizes the contrast between the time periods better than in the former sentence.

And when I just say

In England, in the 1930s, nobody prepared for war.

does that sound warped to a native speaker?

So: how valid (or natural) is this rule?

(By the way, later I learned that the full rule is manner before time before place, but let's not go into that — yet).

  • @FumbleFingers, no never heard that one. But anyway, the question in a broader sense could be whether such rules make sense for foreign speakers as a substitute for internalized rules that native speakers have. But that would be a discussion, not a Q&A. Commented Mar 8, 2012 at 19:17
  • Well, lots of people have heard of the one about "adjective order", and even if they don't consciously know of a rule, native speakers do tend to implement it. Your "rule", on the other hand, may only be known to you (and anyone else taught by the same teacher, assuming you've remembered it correctly! :) Commented Mar 8, 2012 at 19:20
  • I am curious if there is something about Dutch that caused this teacher to develop this rule as a starting point (contrast).
    – horatio
    Commented Mar 8, 2012 at 19:59
  • @horatio - I'm not aware of that, we could say a similar thing in any order. I think that rules like this serve as a prosthesis of sorts until one has developed a some feeling with a language. Maybe there are rules like this for the Dutch language but I have never had to learn them. Commented Mar 8, 2012 at 20:21
  • @GertArnold: Your comment piqued my curiosity, so I've asked Are there any “universal” aspects to “adjective sequence” over on linguistics.se. I've no idea what will come of this, but you may also be interested in any answers I get. Commented Mar 9, 2012 at 15:51

2 Answers 2


You can bring more or less anything to the front of a sentence to give it prominence, so your examples are not the best way to illustrate a fairly solid "rule" in English, namely that time usually occupies the last position. [This is the opposite of what you seem to have learned.] So, we would normally say:

  • I went to the bank yesterday.
  • She usually dines at home on Sundays.
  • We are planning to visit Prague next week.


  • I went yesterday to the bank.
  • She usually dines on Sundays at home.
  • We are planning to visit next week Prague.

If you add manner into the mix, you have a fairly solid rule: manner - place - time:

  • I walked leisurely along the beach all day yesterday.
  • She played very well in the chess tournament last night.
  • I think you have a point, and it actually counters the OP's teacher. However except that it strongly implies that she only dines on Sundays to the exclusion of all other days, "She usually dines on Sundays at home" is perfectly valid (the other two in that category are very awkward and wrong).
    – horatio
    Commented Mar 8, 2012 at 19:58
  • Shoe, I already started to doubt my memory. But this is the final blow. What you say perfectly makes sense. Good to realize, though, that there actually is some rule, although of course it is not a law of physics. Commented Mar 8, 2012 at 20:27

I'm not aware of any such rule. And I don't see any particular sense to it. I'd arrange such clauses in the order that provides the desired emphasis.

"Yesterday in the park I met Alice."

"In the park yesterday I met Alice."

I can't think of any formulation where it doesn't work both ways. I have no idea where your teacher got this rule. Maybe there's another piece to the puzzle, some specific category of cases where it applies, rather than the general case?

Frankly I'm hoping someone else can offer some interpretation of this rule that is valid. Because I don't get it.

  • 1
    +1: I think OP just had a really quirky idiosyncratic teacher. There is a loosely-observed order for adjectives of size, colour, location, etc. - it's not applicable to OP's context here, but maybe that's where the idea stems from. Commented Mar 8, 2012 at 19:10
  • When I hear a rule that makes no apparent sense, or a claimed fact that does not appear to be true, I often wonder if it's been misquoted or taken out of context and the original statement made sense. Oh well.
    – Jay
    Commented Mar 9, 2012 at 14:38

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