Adjectives: how to order them

This article is based on an essay I wrote for my MA in English Language and Linguistics.

It’s better to use as few adjectives as possible in writing, but sometimes an author does want to string a few together before a noun; these are known as attributive adjectives. Note that adjectives in English cannot be strung together in any old order: there is a rule that many native speakers might not even realise exists: that adjectives go in a specific order. Compare (1) and (2).

  1. The red big bus.
  2. The big red bus.

Perhaps you cringed slightly at (1), but accepted (2) as ‘correct’. This means you subconsciously know this rule, just as you know that the subject of a sentence goes before the verb and the object goes after the verb. If both sounded OK to you, perhaps it would help to look at some of the attempts to define the order of adjectives.

Some reference works give an absolute order of adjectives based on the semantic classification of adjectives. The numbers of adjective classes can vary between these accounts, and there may be variations in the stated orders. Another account orders adjectives relatively, depending on their relationship to the noun. I’ll discuss these before giving my own recommended order of adjectives.

The MacMillan Guide to English Grammar

Fergusson and Manser 1998 suggest the absolute order in (A); examples are given in (3–6).

    1. general adjectives (size, shape, age, temperature, etc.)
    2. -ing and -ed forms of verbs used as adjectives
    3. adjectives of colour
    4. adjectives of nationality
    5. nouns used as adjectives and adjectives derived from nouns.
  1. hot green tea [A1,A3]
  2. big red bus [A1,A3]
  3. Brazilian football team [A4,A5]
  4. medium striped t-shirt [A1,A5]

There is a degree of flexibility permitted to Fergussen and Manser’s order based on emphasis (7) or closeness of the adjective to the noun (8).

  1. striped medium t-shirt [A5,A1]
  2. Chinese green tea [A4,A3]

In (7), the order has been swapped from (7) to emphasise that the t-shirt is medium-sized, as opposed to a small striped t-shirt.

In (8), it might be expected that the order is green Chinese tea, but the order is reversed to reflect that it is tea that is green and from China as opposed to tea from China that is green. That is the colour adjective is more closely related to the tea than its country of origin.

The Royal Order of Adjectives

The Royal Order of Adjectives (B) was determined by Darling no date, according to GU no date. There are more adjective classes than in Fergusson and Manser’s 1998 order.

  1. determiner
    indicates which noun (or nouns) is (or are) being referred to: the bus, three buses, their bus. This does not account for the three buses all came at once
    observation
    notes what the writer or speaker (or character in a novel) sees or thinks about the noun: cute cat, tasty pie, noisy dog
    size, shape
    contribute to a physical description of the noun: medium t-shirt, round face
    age
    indicates how old the noun is: old man, modern shoes
    colour
    contributes to a physical description of the noun: red bus, yellow bus.
    origin
    shows where the noun comes from: Chinese tea, northern soul, French wine
    material
    gives what the noun is made from, and can either be a noun or an adjective: cotton t-shirt (noun), wooden box (adjective), vegetable pie (noun)
    qualifier
    often denotes the purpose of the noun; as such, it can be considered part of the noun, and is sometimes itself a noun: swimming pool, wine bottle, dog collar

The examples in (3–6) also work under the Royal Order (9–12), assuming that striped gives the physical description of the t-shirt. There is no account for (7–8) under the Royal Order of Adjectives.

  1. hot green tea [B2,B5]
  2. big red bus [B3,B5]
  3. Brazilian football team [B6,B8]
  4. medium striped t-shirt [B3,B5]

Ordering adjectives relatively

Semantically classifying adjectives and arranging the semantic classes into an absolute order is great for speakers of other languages who are learning English because it gives them an idea of how to sort adjectives in English. However, it does not necessarily describe how native speakers use adjectives intuitively. An alternative approach defines the order of adjectives relatively, depending on their relationship with the noun (C).

  1. an adjective will be placed closer to the noun … if it is:
    1. more central to the meaning of the noun
    2. a more inherent, durable quality of the noun
    3. more generic (rather than specific) information
    4. more given (rather than new) information
    5. a non-restrictive (rather than restrictive) modifier.
    Harris 1982

Examples (3–8) are not as easy to analyse (D) as they are in the absolute orders.

    1. The temperature of hot green tea is more variable than the type of tea (C2).
    2. Big red bus seems tricky. Red buses can be any size; big buses can be any colour (C1). The size of the bus cannot be changed, whereas a respray will easily change the colour of the bus (C2). Perhaps the colour is more generic than the size: there are lots of red buses, whereas there are few that are big (C3). Neither the colour nor the size is newer information than the other (C4). Either could be treated as restrictive (the bus that is big and red is coming) or non-restrictive (the bus, which is big and red, is coming) modifiers (C5). Perhaps the context would give more information.
    3. There are many football teams all over the world, including many in Brazil: a Brazilian football team is therefore a subset of football team. The Brazilian football team (i.e. the national team) is an even smaller subset of football team. The origin of the team is more specific than the type of team, so (C3) applies.
    4. Medium striped t-shirt is similar to big red bus, although it seems more likely that (C2) applies. Imagine a clothes shop that sells striped t-shirts and spotted t-shirts. Each patterned t-shirt comes in small, medium and large. The shop will likely display the t-shirts by pattern rather than by size. That is, the pattern is a more inherent quality of the noun than the size.
    5. Striped medium t-shirt, as opposed to medium striped t-shirt, emphasises the size. None of the conditions in (C) appear to apply, suggesting that this relative order cannot account for emphasis.
    6. In Chinese green tea, the colour of the tea is the result of the way the tea leaves are processed, but the tea plants themselves can be grown in any country with an appropriate climate, including China. Tea from China can be processed to produce black, green, white or yellow tea. Therefore, (C2) applies.

Our recommended order of adjectives

For speakers of other languages, I’d aim for the order given in table 1, bearing in mind that the order may be changed for emphasis if desired.

PositionClassificationExamples
1determinerthe, a, an
this, that, these, those
my, your, their
2number, quantitythree, five, some
3observation, opinionexpensive, funny, good-looking
4sizesmall, medium, large
5physical qualityfurry, slippery, shaded
6shapeoval, heart-shaped, cubic
7ageold, new, ancient, modern
8colourpurple, teal, orange
9origin (not necessarily geographical)British, north-eastern
Maoist, Christian
Shakespearian
10materialcotton, wooden, carbon-fibre
11typehorned, blood-sucking, two-handled
12nouns used as adjectives
purpose, qualifier
football, passenger, master
swimming, welding, folding
My recommended order of adjectives

Note that not all combinations of determiner and number re permitted (e.g. the three bears, but not a three bears).

Using my recommended order, examples (3–8) are analysed as in (13–18).

  1. hot green tea [5,8]
  2. big red bus [4,8]
  3. Brazilian football team [9,12]
  4. medium striped t-shirt [4,5]
  5. striped medium t-shirt [5,4]
  6. Chinese green tea [9,11] if green is considered the type of tea rather than the colour of the tea

Other examples are shown in (19–25).

  1. little cotton socks [4,10]
  2. ugly tall new box [3,4,7]
  3. a heart-shaped tin box [1,6,10]
  4. two new Shakespearian plays [2,7,9]
  5. the cute tiny sparkling purple Scottish horned ant [1,3,4,5,8,9,11]
  6. a small round yellow Victorian ceramic two-handled drinking vessel [1,4,6,8,9,10,11,12]
  7. the three valuable long sleek aero-dynamic antique red British steel two-seater racing cars [1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11,12]

You can see that the more adjectives there are, the more complex and unwieldy the list gets. If two or more adjectives from the same semantic class are used, then a comma (26) or and (27) needs to be inserted between them GU no date.

  1. clever, attractive people ↔︎ attractive, clever people [3,3]
  2. blue and gold ribbons ↔︎ gold and blue ribbons [8,8]

Note that the adjectives in this case are interchangeable.

Conclusion

The relative order is perhaps the most difficult order to understand, even for a native speaker of English, as it requires some wrangling of the adjectives into the correct order.

There are differences between the various absolute orders of adjectives, largely because of the semantic classification of adjectives used to define the order. Differences arise from:

  • disagreement about whether the determiner should be included or excluded from the list
    • whether to include number with the determiner
  • the merging of semantic groups (e.g. size and shape) where perhaps they might be better separated for clarity (e.g. it might not be apparent to a speaker of other languages that large square box is better than square large box)
  • disagreement about which order the semantic groups should be arranged into
  • disagreement about the semantic classification of certain adjectives (e.g. is thin an adjective of observation/opinion or a physical quality? Is fast an adjective of observation/opinion, of physical quality or does it belong to a separate speed class?)
  • the intended emphasis.

Despite the differences between absolute orders, this is perhaps the best method for the speaker of other languages, whereas native speakers can usually rely on intuition.

The best way to avoid the problems associated with ordering adjectives is to minimise adjective use.

References