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What is the rule for adjective order?

In Letter #163 to W.H. Auden from page 214 of The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Tolkien mentions his mother noting but not explaining that one had to say ‘a great green dragon’ instead of the other way around:

My mother said nothing about the dragon, but pointed out that one could not say ‘a green great dragon’, but had to say ‘a great green dragon’. I wondered why, and still do.

Apart from the obvious aesthetics, why is this?

Possibly related is something my French teacher once said, that adjectives related to size should be placed before the noun, and other adjectives should be placed after the noun — thus ‘un grand chat noir.’

Is it quite simply the same rule in English (with the noun moved after all adjectives), or is there something else at work?

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  • The normal order of adjectives is size before color, but it's certainly possible to imagine color before size without having to contrive a context where that order would be appropriate.
    – user21497
    Dec 6, 2012 at 10:41
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    Not a complete answer but an observation. The phrase "a green great dragon" suggests to me, "a green Great Dragon". In other words a type of dragon that also happens to be green. I think that this has a similarity with what are called 'operator precedence rules' in arithmetic. Certain adjectives bind more strongly than others. Aug 27, 2015 at 14:58

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