By Lauren Molin
When he was seven years old, J.R.R. Tolkien wrote his first story involving a green, great dragon. When he showed it to his mother, though, she told him that green, great dragons can’t exist, there can only be great, green dragons. The future author became discouraged and didn’t write another story for many years.
His mother shouldn’t have shut him down like that, but it does get you thinking about the unspoken rule about adjective order native speakers naturally follow. According to the online ESL Library, the order is
- Quantity (so many, much, a few, very)
- Opinion (lovely, amazing, boring, ugly, great)
- Size (tiny, large,)
- Temperature (hot, cold)
- Shape/Weight/Length/Height (round, square/heavy, light/ short, long)
- Physical quality/condition (thin, rough)
- Age (old, new)
- Color (green, blue,)
- Pattern (striped, plaid)
- Origin (Italian, Australian)
- Material (Silk, iron)
- Purpose (sleeping, gardening)
(However, I have seen several sources that switch up physical quality and shape, as well as shape and age. For some reason, those seem to vary.)
The only exception to this order rule is when you have phrases like Big, Bad Wolf. This is because those phrases are following the rule of reduplication, where a word/part of a word is repeated (and occasionally modified), and then added to make a longer phrase. There are several types of reduplication, but ‘big, bad’ follows ablaut reduplication. This is where words follow the vowel rule of I, A, and then O. Words following this rule include riff-raff, chit-chat, and, of course, big-bad.
After all of these, we have our lovely, new noun.
A few more adjective rules:
- When separating adjectives, you don’t use the word ‘and’ if it’s before the noun unless it’s to separate adjectives of a similar kind, like patterns, materials, and colors. You wouldn’t say “a white, red car”, you would say “a white and red car”. If the adjectives come after the noun, however, you add a ‘to be’ verb (is, was) and separate the last two adjectives with ‘and’.
- Ex: an old, dark house — The house was old and dark.
- A shiny, new car — The car was shiny and new.
- Between the purpose adjective and the one before it, there is no comma.
- Generally, people use up to three other adjectives before the purpose and noun. More than that and it tends to sound a little over the top.
Let’s go through a few examples of good and bad adjective order.
A lovely, little, red reading table
This one is good – it has opinion, size, color, purpose, and noun.
An Italian, thin, purple scarf
This one is bad — The correct order that it would normally be place in is ‘thin’ ‘purple’, and then ‘Italian’.
A blue, rough, large cup
An ugly, puce sports car
A useful, heavy lamp
???? Well, what do you think?