Grammar 101: Adjectives are ordered

As a content creator, you may sometimes come across something you know is wrong, but can’t put your finger on why it’s wrong. This could be because you’ve forgotten an obscure grammar rule, or perhaps you were never taught that rule at school. A prime example I find when I’m working on other people’s documents is that many people aren’t aware there’s a particular order adjectives need to appear in.

‘What on earth is she talking about?’ I hear you ask.

Let’s start at the beginning. You may remember from primary school that an adjective is a describing word. Good. If that’s all you remember about adjectives, that’s fine too.

What I’m about to tell you might blow your enormous and very gorgeous minds.

Adjectives can be put into categories such as opinion, colour, size, material, origin, purpose etc.

The cumulative adjectives rule says that if we use more than one category of description, there’s a specific order in which the adjectives must appear. And that’s this order:

  1. Opinion or quality
  2. Size
  3. Age
  4. Shape
  5. Colour
  6. Origin
  7. Material
  8. Purpose

Consider this example: The beautiful young Italo-Australian goddess entered the room.

No, I’m not talking about me (Seriously. Definitely not me). I’m talking about the order that the adjectives are used in:

The beautiful (opinion) young (age) Italo-Australian (origin) Goddess sounds right to native English speakers. It follows the order of cumulative adjectives. When we use two or more descriptive words that describe different attributes, the descriptions build up in the above order until we have a complete picture of the thing being described.

Try it yourself:

How would you describe a knife that was used for paring that had a bone handle, was large and also considered an antique?

Most native English speakers would say it was a large antique bone-handled paring knife.

They wouldn’t say it was a paring bone-handled antique large knife. It just sounds odd.

Note that there are no commas used in this description. This is because we are using adjectives in the above order.

This cumulative adjectives rule can sometime trip up people for whom English isn’t their first language; so if this is you, I suggest you copy out the above list and compare what you read to that list. You’ll find that we always use adjectives in this order.

However (yes, I know, there’s always a ‘however’), if you use descriptors that are within the one category, these are called coordinate adjectives and they do take commas.

For example, ‘This wonderful, stylish and glittering dress’ uses opinion/quality adjectives, so they can sit in any order and they take commas.

Don’t believe me? Try this. You could just as easily say, ‘This glittering, stylish and wonderful dress.’ Changing the order makes no difference to how it sounds to our ears.

So there you have it: there’s a special order we use which adjectives in. If they appear in this special order, they don’t take commas. And if the adjectives are all in the same category, you do need commas between them.

For more tips and tricks, check out the list of topics to the left of this page.

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