The more I write, the more I learn. And today I learned something new. I learned that when you list more than one adjective before a noun that there should be a certain order to the adjectives. Though we might know this subjectively because a certain order of adjectives won’t sound right, it’s good to have a guideline.
Here are three orders for adjectives, each from a different source:
⬛ ESL Guidelines on Cumulative Adjectives from the Bedford Guide
- Opinion – size – shape – age – color – origin – religion – material – noun used as an adjective.
- Beautiful big square old red Chinese Buddhist wooden desk table.
⬛ Cambridge Dictionary on Adjective Order
- Opinion – size – physical quality – shape – age – color – origin – material – type – purpose.
- Beautiful big hard square old red Chinese wood corner writing table.
Differences from ESL Guidelines:
- Physical quality is added. Physical qualities include hard, thin, soft, rough, shiny, and so on.
- Religion is not included but it should be, especially if your adjectives include an origin and a religion.
- Type and purpose are added but noun used as an adjective is not. I think type and purpose is important, but so is a noun used as an adjective. If I had to use all these adjectives for my table, I’d put it in the order of material – type – purpose – noun used as an adjective so that it becomes a wood corner writing desk table.
⬛ Adjective Order Found on First Page of Google Search
- Quantity – opinion – size – age – shape – color – proper adjective – purpose
- One beautiful big old square red Chinese writing table.
Differences from Above:
- Quantity is added. Though, to be fair, the ESL Guidelines says the first thing should be articles or determiners, in which the quantity is considered a determiner. Other articles and determiners include a, an, the, some, this, these, his, hers, my, several, and so on.
- Age and shape are reversed. Does this mean it should be old square table or square old table? Or how about older square table or square older table? I think saying the age first sounds better.
- The site says a proper adjective can be a nationality or religion or other proper adjective. And it says that the material can go in this place too, but doesn’t state which order if you wanted to include the material, nationality, and religion.
While the English language has many hard and fast rules, I think it’s fair to say that there are certain aspects in which opinions may vary. This seems to be one of them. So, if you need to list a series of adjectives, use this as a guideline only and, in the end, follow your gut.
Other quick tips on cumulative adjectives:
- The adjectives are not usually separated by commas and the word “and” isn’t used.
- As a writer, you probably shouldn’t use more than three adjectives. If you feel you need more, add other sentences. Ex. The old Chinese writing table stood out from the dark corner with its red paint and the beautiful engravings etched along its edges. It was big, but not as big as the modern desks we see in offices today. And though it was square like most desks, it wasn’t as tall.
Have you learned anything new about writing or editing recently?