In spoken and written language, in colloquial and formal context. Is there a general rule to use in sentences like the following:

"How many broken yellow plastic toys?"

"All those old yellowish lost scholar books."

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    I don't think there are rules applicable universally to everyone and every context. However, I would never like to read anything more than three modifiers in a row. Most style guides may suggest a limit about the same or similar. – Kris Dec 28 '12 at 15:13
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    If someone voted down, could please tell why? – rraallvv Dec 28 '12 at 15:26
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    Suppose you read a rule that said "You can have at most N adjectives". What would happen if you then read a sentence that had N+1 adjectives. Do you think you'd understand it? Do you N+1 would definitively sound wrong and only N sound right? – Mitch Dec 28 '12 at 15:40
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    "It was a one-eyed one-horned flying purple people eater." – Peter Shor Dec 28 '12 at 16:17
  • There are also math papers about "bounded hereditary noetherian prime rings". – Peter Shor Dec 28 '12 at 23:59

You can have as many as you like, consistent with the patience of your readers or listeners.

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The answer is seven. Seven adjectives.

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    It was a funny unexpected ingenious applicable short informal quick answer – rraallvv Dec 28 '12 at 15:24
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    @rraallvv: Exactly. Any more would have been excess. Any less, diminution. – Robusto Dec 28 '12 at 15:26
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    This is a sensational answer: nowpublic.com/world/… – MetaEd Dec 28 '12 at 15:36
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    -1 references? otherwise this is wrong. Wrong, smarmy and condescending. – bharal Dec 28 '12 at 16:35
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    @bharal: Surely you must mean it is a wrong, smarmy, condescending, horrible, no-good, inadequate, spurious answer. – Robusto Dec 28 '12 at 16:38

No rules.

But I'd opine, FWIW, (not much), off the top of my head, that you'd get away with three on most occasions without it being too too obvious that you were pushing the limits, and that beyond that you'd probably want some special euphony or alliterative effect or other special-case reason, to make it seem other than just strained, "try-hard", or plain wrong.

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  • +1 for "no rules", because clearly, surely, obviously, intuitively, and certainly there aren't any fixed rules – not for adjectives, and not for adverbs, either. – J.R. Dec 28 '12 at 19:29

A general rule for multiple adjectives modifying one noun in English orders the adjectives by their semantic category:

value > size > dimension > various physical properties > color

e.g., nice fat long crispy dark-brown pretzels. See the citation in the first paragraph on p.2 of Kemmerer et al (2008) for more on this. My guess is that the major consideration in acceptability of multi-adjective noun phrases is that all of the adjectives refer to orthogonal characteristics of the object referred to. It would not do, for example, to have two different color adjectives.

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    The question as I see it is about the count*, not the **order. You might want to offer this as a very useful and relevant comment. – Kris Dec 29 '12 at 6:02
  • @Kris you guys are priceless. – user31341 Dec 29 '12 at 6:12
  • That which has no price has no value. In most cases. – user21497 Dec 29 '12 at 13:52
  • @Kris: Perhaps that's true about the question, but I think the meat of this response is pertinent enough to warrant it being its own answer. After all, it does answer the question, in an indirect way: The more correct the semantic ordering, the more adjectives you can pile on before it begins to sound awkward. Let me see if I can do this right: I think this is a valuable, relevant, well-researched, too-big-for-a-comment, upvote-worthy answer. – J.R. Dec 29 '12 at 15:09
  • Also in the same paragraph "…adjectives that denote objective, absolute, inherent properties of entities, like color, tend to occur closer to the modified noun than adjectives that denote subjective, relativistic, context-sensitive properties, like value". Interesting – rraallvv Dec 29 '12 at 16:51

As with any art form, the more skilled you are at writing, the more bizarre your writing can be. Kris's comment about 3 adjectives in a row is standard and I agree with it, but the first example, "broken yellow color toys", doesn't work for me, and the second, "old yellowish lost scholar books" is even less successful. Barrie's pragmatic approach seems sage advice. Another way of saying it is: However many you can get away with chaining together. Readers aren't very patient about that kind of thing if it happens often.

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  • And, as you can see, some readers aren't very patient about anything they just happen to disagree with, whether or not there's a reason to disagree. So the best advice is to be like the James Joyce of Finnegans Wake and write for yourself instead of for your readers. – user21497 Dec 28 '12 at 15:51
  • This is by far the best answer. People, put your votes in yonder box please. – Cerberus_Reinstate_Monica Dec 28 '12 at 16:41
  • Of course "broken yellow color toys" doesn't work, because "color" is a superfluous word there (which is why I changed it in the O.P.'s question). But you're right about the patience of readers, even though there are some notable novelty exceptions, such as the little bathing suit, Alexander's crummy day, and the mythical creature @PeterShor mentioned. – J.R. Dec 28 '12 at 19:23
  • @J.R.: I wasn't thinking clearly enough or I would have said something about "yellow color" being a direct translation from Chinese (or some other language) where the word "color" is required to ensure that the listener knows that 黃色 (huángsè) is not some other word: Chinese has so many homophones that it's often necessary to add a word for clarity. I don't remember whether it's necessary in Japanese (黃色 = kiiro), in which the combination is very familiar to my ears, but I think it is. – user21497 Dec 28 '12 at 23:41

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