Adjective Order

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Two yellow taxis in NY
Two yellow taxis.

Joe Kohen / Getty Images 

In English grammar, adjective order is the customary order in which two or more adjectives appear in front of a noun phrase.

Although adjective order in English isn't random, "ordering relations . . . are tendencies rather than rigid rules". (David Dennison, Cambridge History of the English Language)

Examples and Observations

  • (a) "Very smart little gold-plated collar pins come in various designs."
    (Marion C. Taylor, "Shopping for the Smart Set." The Smart Set, December 1911)
    (b) "Stanley was the little smart one whom we went to for authoritative answers."
    (Philip Zimbardo, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil. Random House, 2007)
  • (a) "This brave old man and his sons were amongst the first to hear and heed the trumpet of freedom calling them to battle."
    (Frederick Douglas, Life and Times of Frederick Douglas, 1881)
    (b) "This is the roadstead all of board
    reached by the sailor
    wearing the watch
    that tells the time
    of the old, brave man
    that lies in the house of Bedlam."
    (Elizabeth Bishop, "Visits to St. Elizabeths." Partisan Review, Spring 1957)
    "'[A] brave young man' and 'a brave old man' are acceptable, but *'brave blond man' is not. Both young and old help specify the meaning of brave ('brave young ...' suggests 'taking risks,' and 'brave old . . .' suggests 'enduring,' perhaps), but 'brave blond...' is odd because it has no appropriate meaning elements to specify the sense of brave."
    (Jim Feist, Premodifiers in English: Their Structure and Significance. Cambridge University Press, 2012)

"The order of adjectives in English is not rand om; different types of adjectives occur in a certain order. The exception to this is with adjectives of general description and those of physical state (size, shape, color), where their order may be reversed.

( 16a) They own an enormous, long-handled cutting knife.
( 16b) They own a long-handled, enormous cutting knife.
( 17a) She has a round yellow sofa.
( 17b) She has a yellow round sofa.

When the adjective order is reversed, as in the sentences above, the speaker generally wants to emphasize or draw attention to the first adjective in the sequence.

"Native speakers and highly proficient non-native speakers know intuitively the order in which adjectives should occur when more than one is used. . . . However, the order of a string of adjectives is something that ESL/EFL learners need to learn."  (Andrea DeCapua, Grammar for Teachers: A Guide to American English for Native and Non-Native Speakers. Springer, 2008)

The Order of Limiting and Descriptive Adjectives

"When limiting and descriptive adjectives appear together, the limiting adjectives precede the descriptive adjectives, with the articles usually in the first position:

The ten yellow taxis were sold at auction.
[article ( The), limiting adjective ( ten), descriptive adjective ( yellow)]"

(Gerald J. Alred, Charles T. Brusaw, and Walter E. Oliu, The Business Writer's Handbook, 9th ed. Macmillan, 2010)

The Order of Adjectives in a Series

"Sometimes adjectives appear in a string; when they do, they must appear in a particular order according to category.

"Adjective appear in the following order:

1. Determiners-- articles and other limiters . . .
2. Observation--postdeterminers and limiter adjectives and adjectives subject to subjective measure . . .
3. Size and shape--adjectives subject to objective measure . . .
4. Age--adjectives describing age . . .
5. Color--adjectives describing color . . .
6. Origin--adjectives denoting the source of the noun . . .
7. Material--adjectives describing what something is made of . . .
8. Qualifier--final limiter that is often part of the noun . . ."

(Kevin Wilson and Jennifer Wauson, The AMA Handbook of Business Writing: The Ultimate Guide to Style, Grammar, Punctuation, Usage, Construction, and Formatting. AMACOM, 2010)

Norms and Variations

"Adjectives have mutual ordering relations which are tendencies rather than rigid rules: big brown bag is a more likely ordering than brown big bag. Over the entire recorded history of English there have been some changes here--compare Chaucer's the old pore mans deth--but in our period there seems to be little chronological variation. We find such examples as

( 93a) but indeed that little foolish Woman has made me very uneasy.
(1789 Betsy Sheridan, Journal 60 p. 171 ([15 June])
( 93b) you little ungrateful puss
(1848 Gaskell, Mary Barton vi.87)
( 93c) Mrs Lee is a little timid woman
(1850 Gaskell, Letters 70 p. 112 [26 April])
( 93d) they came into the little interesting criss-crossy streets that held the most interesting shops of all
(1906 Nesbit, Amulet i.18)
( 94a) Then there is an old curious seat of the Marquis of Northampton
(1838 Gaskell, Letters 12 p. 28 [18 August])
( 94b) down some old mysterious stone steps
(1841 ibid. 15 p. 820)
( 95) in order to find the knitting old woman [some old woman who was famous . . . for her skill in knitting woolen stockings]
(1851-3 Gaskell, Cranford xi.101)

In (93) we might expect little to come one place further to the right in PDE [present-day English], likewise old in (94), while knitting in (95) would probably come next to the head noun. Of course, isolated oddities do not in themselves show a difference in the language system, since at any period there has been freedom to violate the norms of adjectival order."
(David Dennison, "Syntax." The Cambridge History of the English Language, Volume 4, ed. by Suzanne Romaine. Cambridge University Press, 1998)

Idiomatic Placement of Adjectives

"Harper 1975, 1985 points out that some precisians--'nit-pickers' is Harper's word--object to the illogical placement of adjectives in such expressions as 'a hot cup of coffee,' 'a brand-new pair of shoes.' The argument is that it's the coffee that's hot, the shoes that are brand-new. . . . Harper points out that the placement of these adjectives is idiomatically correct, so the nitpickers may be ignored."
(Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage. Merriam-Webster, 1994)

Semantic Factors Affecting Adjective Order

"In most publications that discuss adjective order, the semantics of the adjectives is presented as the main factor determining their ordering, although phonological and pragmatic factors (like euphony, idiomacy and emphasis) are generally thought to have some influence as well. The publications do not agree, however, on the nature of the semantic factor that is responsible for the order of the adjectives. Biber et al. (1999) argue that (English) adjectives expressing inherent features have to stand closer to the noun than those expressing non-inherent features (e.g. a new red ball). Martin (1969), Posner (1986) and Sproat and Shih (1988), on the other hand, assume that the crucial factor for adjective ordering is their (in)dependence on comparison (i.e. the degree in which recognition of the feature asks for comparison with other objects). They argue that the less dependent on the comparison, the nearer the adjective is placed to the noun. Hetzron (1978) and Risselada (1984), in their turn, suppose that the subjectivity/objectivity of the adjectives controls their position: the more objective the quality expressed by the adjective (i.e. the more a matter of recognition instead of opinion), the closer to the noun it has to be expressed (e.g. a nice green shirt, *a green nice shirt). Wulff (2003), finally, concludes on the basis of a statistical corpus analysis that various factors affect adjective ordering, of which (in)dependence on the comparison, affective load and the subjectivity/objectivity of the adjective are most influential."
(Stéphanie J. Bakker, The Noun Phrase in Ancient Greek. Brill, 2009)

Also Known As: order of adjectives, adjectival order

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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Adjective Order." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 27). Adjective Order. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Adjective Order." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 20, 2023).