Order of Adjectives
Adjectives are words that modify a noun or a pronoun. In other words, they describe a person, place, or thing in a sentence. Adjectives usually come before the noun. For example:
- “The small dog jumped over the white fence.”
Small is an adjective that describes the noun dog, and white is an adjective that describes the noun fence.
Adjectives add to the richness of our descriptions of people and things. They allow the listener or the reader to paint a mental picture of the person or object that is being described to them.
Think about some adjectives that you know. Some of the most common words are adjectives like good, bad, young, old, big, and small.
Each of these adjectives serves a purpose by describing a different aspect of the noun. Good and bad give an opinion of the noun, old and young tell us about the noun’s age, while big and small describe the noun’s size.
The good news is that adjectives are relatively simple in English. In some languages, the adjective changes its form depending on whether the noun it modifies is singular/plural, or feminine/masculine. In English, we don’t have those complications: the adjective always remains the same.
When we speak or write, we don’t want to bore our listener or reader with repetitive sentences. Imagine a description like this:
- “He is a tall man. He is a healthy man. He is a young man.”
You would be so bored that you wouldn’t want to listen to another word. Luckily, we have another option. We can make such a description more concise by using all three adjectives in one sentence:
- “He is a tall healthy young man.”
Using more than one adjective in a sentence makes our writing and speech richer and more concise. However, this is also where we have to be careful, because certain adjectives appear in a certain order. For example, in the description above, which would be more correct: tall healthy young man, or young healthy tall man?
The answer is tall healthy young man, but why?
In English, we generally have a specific order of adjectives (although this can sometimes be flexible). Without this order, the sentence sounds unnatural, as in “young healthy tall man.” To avoid unnatural-sounding sentences, we group adjectives by type, and we try to use them in this order:
- 1. Opinion
- 2. Measurements
- 3. Shape
- 4. Condition
- 5. Age
- 6. Color
- 7. Pattern
- 8. Origin
- 9. Material
- 10. Purpose
Obviously we never have a sentence that uses 10 adjectives to describe one noun; in fact, it would be rare to find a sentence that uses more than three adjectives to modify the same noun. We do need to know a little about each type, though, so that when we need to use two or three adjectives in a row, we’ll use them in the right order.
First, let’s look at each type of adjective in detail. After that we’ll see some examples of sentences that string two or more adjectives together.
Types of Adjectives
Adjectives of opinion always come first before any other factual descriptions of the noun. There are two types of opinion adjectives. The first are general opinion adjectives and can be used with any kind of noun, whether it is a person, place, or thing.
Some of the most common general opinion adjectives are:
The second type are specific opinion adjectives. These are adjectives that can only be used with particular types of nouns. For example:
- People and animals: intelligent, friendly, unfriendly, hard-working
- Buildings and furniture: comfortable, uncomfortable
- Food: flavorful, tasty, delicious
If you want to use a general opinion adjective and a specific opinion adjective in the same sentence, the general opinion adjective should come first. For example:
- “Isn’t Maria a lovely, intelligent girl?”
Lovely is a general opinion adjective because it can be used with any noun. Therefore, it comes first. Intelligent is a specific opinion adjective because it can only be used with people and animals, so it comes second.
Adjectives of measurement can tell us about the size, height, length, and weight of a person or a thing. Some of the most common adjectives of measurements are:
If we were to use more than one adjective of measurement in a sentence, we would normally use the adjective that mentions the general size first, and the other measurements after. For example:
- “He’s a big, tall man.” (correct)
- “He’s a tall, big man.” (incorrect)
- “I bought a huge, heavy table for the kitchen.” (correct)
- “I bought a heavy, huge table for the kitchen.” (incorrect)
Adjectives of shape usually describe objects. The most common are round, square, rectangular, triangular, and oval. However, there are many words that describe the shapes of objects that we see all around us but that are used less frequently. For example:
Adjectives of condition tell us whether something is in a good or bad state. These are generally adjectives that describe a temporary state of the person or thing in the sentence. Some common adjectives of physical condition are clean, dirty, wet, and dry. Emotions like happy, sad, angry, scared, and excited are also adjectives of condition, as are general states such as rich, powerful, shy, or clever.”
Adjectives of age can describe how old a person, place, or thing is. We have to be careful with adjectives of age, because some are used to describe only people, some are used only for things, and a few are used for both people and things. For example:
- To describe people: young, youthful, elderly
- To describe things: new, antique
- To describe both: old, ancient
Adjectives of color include the names of particular colors themselves, such as yellow, red, and blue, but they can also be approximate colors, like reddish or yellowish, or even properties of colors, such as transparent, translucent or opaque.
If you use both a color and a property of a color in one sentence, the property should come first, and the color after, immediately before the noun. For example:
- “A translucent, yellow cup.”
- “An opaque, blue curtain.”
Adjectives of pattern can describe patterns of materials or even of animals. Some of the most common pattern adjectives are checked, polka-dot, striped, plaid, and flowered.
Adjectives of origin describe where something comes from. Usually, these are adjectives that refer to a specific country or region.
When we use a country adjective, like American, British, Indian, or Korean, note that we capitalize the adjective. Adjectives of origin that refer to a general region, such as eastern or southern, are not capitalized.
Adjectives of material tell us what something is made of. For example:
- “A wooden table.”
- “A plastic chair.”
- “A steel railroad track.”
Last in the order of adjectives are adjectives of purpose. They tell us what something is for. For example:
- “A sleeping bag.”
- “A shopping cart.”
Now, let’s put all of this information about the different types of adjectives together and see some examples of how it works when we modify a noun with more than one adjective:
- “Don’t forget to bring your new striped jacket.”
This sentence has two adjective types: New is an adjective of age and striped is an adjective of pattern.
- “Yesterday my sister gave me a blue wool sweater.”
This sentence also has two adjective types: Blue is an adjective of color, and wool is an adjective of material.
- “I bought an enormous rectangular Turkish rug on my vacation.”
This sentence includes three adjective types: Enormous is an adjective of measurement; rectangular is an adjective of shape; and Turkish is an adjective of origin (specifically of a country, so it’s also capitalized).
We use and to link two adjectives of the same type that describe separate parts of one object. For example:
- “The child was playing with a blue and red plastic robot.
Blue and red are two adjectives of color, joined by and. They are followed by the adjective of material, plastic.
Sometimes a series of adjectives follows a linking verb, like to be. In this case, the last adjective is connected to the previous ones with the word and. For example:
- “The house is big, white, and wooden.”
Using commas with adjectives
Last but not least, we need to mention commas. You have probably noticed that in some of our example sentences the adjectives are separated by commas, and in others they’re not.
In general, we do use commas between adjectives that describe the noun independently from one another. For example:
- “I bought a heavy, long table.”
Each of the above adjectives separately describes the noun table; these are called coordinate adjectives, and they are each separated by a comma.
One way that we can check if adjectives are coordinate is by trying to switch around the order and see if the sentence still makes sense. For example:
- “I bought a long, heavy table.”
The sentence still sounds correct, so we know that we are looking at coordinate adjectives and that we need to use a comma. Another way that we can check is by inserting the word and where the comma would go:
- “I bought a heavy and long table.”
Again, the sentence still sounds correct, so we know we are dealing with coordinate adjectives.
When adjectives build on each other to create a complete description, we don’t separate them with commas. These are called cumulative adjectives, because their descriptions of the noun accumulate. For example:
- “I bought a black wooden table.”
Black is describing wooden table (not just table alone), and so this sentence would sound strange if rearranged, like this:
- “I bought a wooden black table.”
We can also try inserting and, with the same result:
- “I bought a black and wooden table.”
The sentence doesn’t sound right either rearranged or using the and test, so we know that we are dealing with cumulative adjectives, and we should not separate them with commas.
Finally, we should remember that like with most grammar rules, the order of adjectives is not fixed, and there are exceptions. We can do our best to keep adjectives in their natural order, but we may encounter variations.