Cumulative Adjectives: Definition and Examples

A man pushing the first domino in a row, focus on hand
Similar to how a domino affects the following domino, cumulative adjectives work together to describe a noun.

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"Cumulative adjectives" are two or more adjectives that build on one another and together modify a noun. They're consecutive. They are also called "unit modifiers." Indeed, they work together as a unit and are not independent descriptions of the noun. 

For example, "Take a look at this bright green spider!" has two adjectives and a demonstrative pronoun, which all modify the same noun. The spider is not only green but bright green.

The color adjective is made more precise by the addition of another descriptor to it. And it's not that bright green spider way over there, but this bright green spider.

Cumulative adjectives "build up meaning from word to word as they get closer to the noun (familiar rock tunes)," says author Lynn Quitman Troyka. "The order of cumulative adjectives cannot be changed without destroying meaning." ("Simon & Schuster Quick Access Reference for Writers, "4th ed. Prentice Hall, 2003) In fact, cumulative adjectives have a particular order.

Order of Cumulative Adjectives

In English, there is an order to consecutive modifiers (cumulative adjectives) that native speakers don't even study to learn. They just know when something does or doesn't "sound right." Generally, the terms get more specific as you get closer to the noun, or more innate to it or more permanent—though if you really analyze anything in English, you'll be left with exceptions (writers needing to emphasize one adjective over another, for instance), so let's just stop there with the hypotheses as to why they're arranged this way....

Here's the order of adjectives in English:

  1. Articles (a, an, the), demonstrative pronouns (this, those), possessives (our, his, Shelley's)
  2. Quantity (numbers)
  3. Opinion, observation (funny, nasty, smart, beautiful)
  4. Size (large, big, tiny)
  5. Age (young, old)
  6. Shape, length, appearance (round, long, bumpy)
  7. Color
  8. Origin/ethnicity/religion (Dutch, Lutheran)
  1. Material (leather, wood) 
  2. Purpose, a noun used as an adjective (often -ing, such as sleeping in sleeping bag; baseball, as in baseball jersey)

You wouldn't say, "Take a look at green this bright spider!" nor "Take a look at this green bright spider!" to continue the previous example.

Let's say you want to describe a trunk. You'd say, "Wow, that is one huge old pirate trunk," rather than "Wow, that is a pirate one old huge trunk." The adjectives are cumulative, each making the description of the item more clear but working together to do so. 

Do note that some orders of adjectives put size and shape together before age. Ultimately, our ear will tell you if your description works. It'll partially depend on which categories of adjectives you have to build your noun's description. For example, look at "Wow, that is one huge round old pirate trunk" vs. "Wow, that is one huge old round pirate trunk." Shape just works better after age in this instance.

Swapping the adjectives around can tell you if they're cumulative, as they won't pass the "ear test" if they're not. 

Coordinate Adjectives

Contrast cumulative adjectives with coordinate adjectives, which are descriptions of the same noun that are equal in weight and can be looked at separately.

In addition to being separated by commas or an "and," coordinate adjectives can also follow a linking verb (though it's not the most concise writing to put them after their noun).

We could say, "That spider was green and hairy" as well as "That spider was hairy and green," without any issue. Contrast that to the example with the cumulative adjectives. If we move the cumulative adjectives after a linking verb, they both have to go together: "That spider was bright green." It's not a bright spider but a bright green one. 

If we look at the other example, neither would you say, "Wow, that is one and huge and old and pirate trunk." 

If you want to know if the adjectives are coordinate or cumulative, try inserting "and" between adjectives. 

Commas Between Adjectives

Unlike coordinate adjectives, cumulative adjectives are generally not separated by commas.

You could say, "Take a look at this hairygreen spider" or "Take a look at this greenhairy spider!" Both adjectives describe the spider, but they're independent of one another. Green and hairy pertain to different attributes of the spider and are equal in weight, so they can have a comma in between them.

To flesh out the description of the spider with cumulative adjectives as well, it could read, "Take a look at this bright green, hairy spider!" or "Take a look at this hairy, bright green spider!" Cumulative adjectives function as a unit and so have to stay together.