Improve your English: adjective order

a beautiful, big, yellow sunflower

a beautiful, big, yellow sunflower

Adjectives are words that describe or modify nouns.

They’re often called ‘describing words’.

For example, the words ‘beautiful’, ‘big’ and ‘yellow’ in the image description above are all adjectives.

English adjectives come before the noun.

As with other languages, adjectives in English are usually used in a specific order. However, there are no rigid rules and you’ll find slightly different recommendations for the correct order of adjectives according to different sources or lists.

 

Examples of sentences using adjectives

I bought a lovely old blue glass vase for my mother’s birthday.

He wore a small brown fedora.

He’s a horrible old man.

She’s a kind intelligent young woman.

 

Adjective order

Determiner, followed by…

1. Opinion adjectives – adjectives that give an opinion of some sort. For example, ‘beautiful’, ‘lovely’, ‘cool’, ‘terrible’, ‘bad’, ‘good’, ‘delicious’, ‘friendly’, ‘unfriendly’, ‘useless’, ‘interesting’, etc.

Opinion adjectives usually go before descriptive adjectives, and the descriptive adjectives usually follow in this order:

2. Size

3. Age

4. Shape

(some lists say ‘size’ followed by ‘shape’, then ‘age’)

5. Colour

6. Origin/Nationality (German, English, Chinese, Dutch, African, Ugandan, Korean, Turkish etc.)

7. Material (what something is made of e.g. wooden, plastic, cotton, leather, glass, concrete, paper, etc.)

and finally, Purpose/Qualifier

 

Sometimes the adjective order can be changed for emphasis.

For example:

“He has huge ugly feet.” instead of “He has ugly huge feet.”  – reversing the adjective order emphasizes the first adjective and the fact that his feet are huge.

 

How many adjectives?

A sentence with more than three adjectives can sound awkward and so it’s unusual to have more than three in the same sentence.

For example, we could, in theory, say:

“A beautiful, small, antique, white, French, wooden chair.”, but that would sound quite odd!

As with adverbs, less is more when using adjectives in your writing. School children are often encouraged to use adjectives to make their writing more interesting, but professional writers recommend using them sparingly and only when they really do add something to the meaning or description.

 

I don’t remember being taught the order of adjectives when I was learning to speak and write English – like a lot of language use it’s just something children seem to pick up naturally. We know when we think something sounds right, and when it doesn’t, but very often we have no idea how to explain this ‘rule’.

J. R. R.Tolkein, author of The Hobbit and The Lord of The Rings, wrote in a letter to the poet W. H. Auden, this comment about his story about a dragon:

I remember nothing about it except a philological fact. My mother said nothing about the dragon, but pointed out that one could not say “A green great dragon.” but had to say “a great green dragon.” I wondered why, and still do. The fact that I remember this is possibly significant as I do not think I ever tried to write a story again for many years, and was taken up with language.

It seems Tolkein’s love of language was sparked by the mysteries of adjective order 🙂

 

 

So, now that you’ve read this short guide to adjective order, leave me an intelligent, interesting, short, new comment with your thoughts about adjectives 😉

 

 

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Angela Boothroyd

Angela Boothroyd

English language teacher at Botanical Linguist
Hi, I'm Angela, the Botanical Linguist, and I show learners of English how to become successful and self-directed or independent language learners. If you want to improve your English accuracy and fluency and learn everyday strategies and activities that will help you learn English without spending a lot of money on lessons, subscribe to my free newsletter here.
Angela Boothroyd
Angela Boothroyd
Angela Boothroyd

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Comments

  1. I love this post Angela. The English language is fabulous and confusing all at the same time and I think we all need to be reminded occasionally how to expand on our adjectives and make our words a whole lot more enjoyably enticing … or should it be the other way round?
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  2. This detailed post, clearly states what is involved in understanding adjective order 🙂 thank you
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