Grammar 101: Adjectives are ordered

Did you know that adjectives are ordered?

You may remember that an adjective is a describing word. They can describe the colour, size, material, origin, purpose etc. of a person or thing.

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

So, we might write: The beautiful young Italo-Australian goddess entered the room.

Let’s break that down:

The beautiful (opinion) young (age) Italo-Australian (origin) Goddess has the adjectives in the above order.

The reason is that 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. This is called the ‘cumulative adjectives’ rule.

If you’re a native English speaker, it sounds right to your ear. Now you know why.

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?

It’s a large antique bone-handled paring knife.

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

No commas necessary with cumulative adjectives!

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.

Adjectives in the same category can go in any order (and they do take commas)

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.

Remember:

  1. There’s a special order we use which adjectives in when they are from different categories.
  2. If they appear in this special order, they don’t take commas.
  3. But if the adjectives are all in the same category, you do need commas between them.

I’ve created a handy cheat sheet on this which you can download here.

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

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