Adjective Order

Sometimes we use more than one adjective when we’re describing a noun.

 

Sometimes we use several!

 

But how do we know what order they should be in?

The order of adjectives is influenced by emphasis, context and personal choice. That means no book or teacher can give you a foolproof rule!

 

However, these are the most important guides to how we do it.

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If we have only two adjectives, we usually use them in this order:​

  • Use the general adjective before the specific adjective

  • Use a specific adjective before a describing adjective

Helpful Guide Number 1

1. We usually put the general adjective before the specific one.

 

General adjectives are words like ‘good’, ‘bad’, ‘nice’, lovely’, ‘awful’, ‘big’, ‘small’.  Most nouns can be described using one or more general adjectives. For instance, a house could be any of these.

 

Specific adjectives are only used for some kinds of noun. People can be clever, stupid, friendly or helpful. Food can be hot, cold, tasty, delicious.

 

So:  “She is a lovely, friendly woman.”  (general, specific)

Not:   “She is a friendly, lovely woman.”  (specific, general)

“Good, tasty burgers!” (general, specific)

Not: “Tasty, good burgers!”  (specific, general)

Both general and specific adjectives can be considered opinions. I may think Susan is friendly - you might think she is unfriendly. I might think the burgers are horrible, but you may love them!

Helpful Guide Number 2

2. We usually put the opinion adjectives before descriptive ones.

 

Opinion adjectives are the general and specific ones in section 1.

Descriptive adjectives are things that are clear and factual. ‘Red’, ‘green’, ‘high’, ‘tall’, ‘flat’, ‘round’.

 

So: “She wore a nice, green jacket.” (opinion, descriptive)

Not “She wore a green, nice jacket.” (descriptive, opinion)

“Horrible yellow trousers.” (opinion, descriptive)

Not: “Yellow, horrible trousers.” (descriptive, opinion)

“The room had a wonderful, high ceiling.” (opinion, descriptive)

Not: “The room had a high, wonderful ceiling.” (descriptive, opinion)

More than 2 adjectives?

It’s not common, but we do sometimes use three adjectives in front of a noun.  (It’s very unusual to use more than three.)

 

What if more than one of them is descriptive? Or an opinion?

 

This is where things get tricky. Again, there are no foolproof rules!

 

However, it is often the case that we use them in this order:

  1. General opinion

  2. Specific opinion

  3. Size

  4. Shape

  5. Age

  6. Colour

  7. Origin/Nationality

  8. Material (what something is made of)

  9. Use (what something is used for)

For instance:

“A nice, pretty young French girl.”  (general, specific opinion, age, nationality)

“A big, black American car.” (size, colour, origin)

“That old, silver drinking cup.” (age, material, use)

A good, relevant language story!

In September 2016, author Mark Forsyth posted a tweet containing a paragraph from his new book:

“Adjectives in English absolutely have to be in this order: opinion-size-age-shape-colour-origin-material-purpose Noun. So you can have a lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife.

 

"But if you mess with that word order in the slightest you’ll sound like a maniac. It’s an odd thing that every English speaker uses that list, but almost none of us could write it out.”

 

It has since been shared and retweeted more than 50,000 times! There were thousands of comments about it, mainly from native English speakers who had no idea their language was so complicated!

​​

  • “A lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife.”

8 adjectives for one noun?  This is an extreme example, but yes, it sounds perfectly natural to an English-speaker.

This, however, sounds insane:

  • “A whittling little silver old French green rectangular lovely knife.”

It’s wrong. It sounds crazy!

Adjective order in English is very complicated. It’s also something that native speakers can’t explain.  So next time a native speaker corrects you on the order of adjectives, thank them. Then ask them why.

I bet they won't be able to tell you 😀

© 2020 Open Argot English Teaching | marco@openargot.com | Guadalajara, México