The March of the Adjectives

Adjectives add color to writing. In case you forgot what an adjective is, they are those words that modify or describe a noun (thing). Because they describe nouns, it’s not unusual to use more than one before a noun. But I bet you didn’t you know there is an “acceptable” way to order these adjectives.

 Oftentimes a certain order sounds better, but we’re hard-pressed to explain why. I sometimes stop editing when I come across a line like “he wore a black long coat.” It just feels wrong to put black before long. Our language has developed such that certain adjectives just sound better in a certain order. It has nothing to do with a hierarchy of importance, and no, you don’t organize alphabetically. It’s likely that these general rules are somewhat ingrained in us so that our ear is accustomed to putting adjectives in a certain order without knowing the reason.

The general rule is that opinion adjectives precede fact adjectives.

The quick (opinion) brown (fact) fox jumps over the lazy dog.

Interesting. I wonder why that’s so.

Within the category of fact adjectives, grammarians have established a preferred (here’s the hierarchy) order:

  • Size, shape, age,  color
  • Origin
  • Material
  • Purpose

That explains “the old gray mare.”

And: The tall (size) Russian (origin) woman set her dish on the wide (size) oblong (shape) old (age) blue (color) plastic (material) party (purpose) tablecloth.

Extra credit (if you’ve read the entry on coordinating adjectives): Where would you put commas, if any, in the above sentence? Answer: Probably only between wide and oblong, since size and shape are similar types (coordinating) adjectives. Really! Here’s how you’d write it:

  • The tall Russian woman set her dish on the wide, oblong old blue plastic  party  tablecloth.

It’s important to note that not all grammarians agree on this order, and the rules are not rigid. Sometimes the order may be rearranged for emphasis.

  • I’d like to buy a silk square scarf. (My first preference is that it be silk; shape is secondary.)

Now that you know the order of adjectives, are you ready to march?

4 Responses to “The March of the Adjectives”

  1. Anna Labno October 31, 2014 at 8:36 am #

    To one person it can be a red color, to another person it can be pink. People don’t describe colors the same way. They form opinions.

    • cslakin October 31, 2014 at 8:44 am #

      Colors are still adjectives, and a rose by any other name …

  2. Lilian Gafni October 31, 2014 at 10:39 am #

    Thank you CS. This is a great sample to use in one’s writing. I have it taped to my desk as a reminder.

  3. Sue Macdonald October 31, 2014 at 5:31 pm #

    Another timely article – I’m about to do some editing!

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