The Order of Adjectives: Do YOU Know It?

When asked about why we write or talk the way we do, often native English speakers take pause. “I don’t know,” we are forced to admit. “That’s just how it is.”

Many of the grammar rules we learned in school—or even earlier, when we were first acquiring the language—stuck in our subconscious and we can’t even explain why some things are the way they are. We just know to use them instinctively or else it somehow sounds wrong to our ears, but we aren’t sure of an exact rule that would explain it. An example of this is the order of adjectives. Every native English speaker naturally employs the order of adjectives, but someone first learning English must learn this, or else they are in danger of sounding strange to us when they speak. We would certainly understand them, but they would stand out as being different, and we would correct them. For instance:

“That’s a red beautiful shirt you are wearing,” your classmate might tell you.

“Beautiful red shirt,” You would correct them. “Thank you.”

“Why?” They would ask. “What does the order matter?”

Here is where you would be stuck. What does the order matter? And how do you know where to put beautiful in relation to red?

The fact is, despite a lot of research many grammarians and linguists alike, no one can pinpoint the origin of the rule, but it is, indeed, quite important to our language. So much so that people learning English spend a great deal of time committing this particular rule to memory even though we take it for granted. The order of adjectives is as follows:

1. Opinion: nice, awful, gross
2. Size: small, large, gigantic
3. Age: ancient, young, old
4. Shape: square, round, triangular
5. Color: blue, pink, purple
6. Origin: American, Canadian, Japanese
7. Material: velvet, cotton, leather
8. Purpose: writing (paper), school (shoes)

Another thing to keep in mind is that, according to the rule, you wouldn’t use more than three adjectives in a row. According to this chart, you might say that you have a blue cotton shirt, but you wouldn’t say that you have a leather purple coat. Going up the chart always works, but if you go backwards, it immediately sends of klaxons of wrongness in the brain. In The Elements of Eloquence: How to Turn the Perfect English Phrase, author Mark Forsyth discusses both this rule at length and also uncovers more idiosyncrasies about the English language, such as the “I before E except after C rule,” which is commonly taught to children to help them remember how to spell, but for which there are only 44 words that follow the rule as opposed to 923 exceptions. These rules and their exceptions make us one of the most fascinating languages on the planet, but also the most maddening. Even for native speakers, you may not know why you know what you know, and it’s never too late to stop learning about our beloved language. Keep reading and editing and from those of us at The LetterWorks have a happy New Year!

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