Believe it or not, there is a rule for the order of adjectives in front of a noun.
If you have ever felt that rules governing language are picky or strange or whatever, this is such a situation.
People who grow up speaking American English will find this order of adjectives to simply “sound” right.
Just for the sake of an exercise, as we work through the ordering, let’s write a sentence that has each type of adjective, building as we go! Although this post uses fifteen adjectives in the final step of the exercise, that is at least twelve too many for a readable sentence. However, creating those sentences was fun.
Determiners are first in order.
Possessive adjectives (i.e., “my,” “their,” “your”) or demonstrative adjectives (i.e., “this,” “those”) come first in a series of adjectives. It would not be common to use both (
my this book, her that dog).
Articles (“a,” “an,” “the”), numerical limiters (i.e., “both,” “many,” “each”) or numbers (i.e., “one,” “seventeen,” “third,” “tenth”). The singular (“a” or “an”) is not used with either a possessive determiner or a number. (Exceptions: Words that are not actually numbers but imply a specific number may use a single indefinite article, i.e., “single,” “pair,” “trio.”)
Numbers may be used with other determiners except the singular indefinite (“a,” “an”) articles (implying only one) or other numerical limiters (i.e., every, none, most), which take the place of numbers.
The order would be the possessive adjective before the number.
Exercise: His three puppies met us at the gate.
(“His” = possessive adjective, “three” = adjective of number)
Adjectives of opinion describe what someone thinks about something. They may be divided into two categories, general and specific.
General adjectives of opinion may refer to anything: good, bad, nice, funny, ugly, weird.
Specific adjectives of opinion, because of their meanings, are more likely to be assigned to animate beings: lazy, friendly, smart, thoughtful, or kind (adjectives dealing with some kind of intention).
Most adjectives of opinion fit with either animate or inanimate beings, so the order between the two is not critical.
Exercise: His three friendly puppies met us at the gate.
(“friendly” = specific adjective of opinion)
Size is determined in several ways: height (tall), length (short), weight (light), or in general (large). When combining two adjectives of size, the order is that the general one goes before the more specific.
Exercise: His three friendly, small, heavy puppies met us at the gate.
(“small”= general adjective of size, “heavy” = adjective of weight)
People and objects come in a variety of shapes: round, pointy, straight, obtuse, bent, flat. Shape would be next in order, after size.
Exercise: His three friendly small, heavy, round puppies met us at the gate.
(“round” = adjective of shape)
Adjectives of condition describe the temporary state of something. They may refer to a physical condition (clean), an emotional condition (happy), or a general condition (powerful).
Exercise: His three friendly, small, heavy, round, happy puppies met us at the gate.
(“happy” – adjective of an emotional condition)
Again, some adjectives of age would be more appropriate with animate beings (young, elderly) than with inanimate beings (new, antique). Most will work with either.
Exercise: His three friendly, small, heavy, round, happy, young puppies met us at the gate.
(“young” = adjective of age)
Color may be a specific color (blue, greenish) or a property of color (dark, transparent). If using both to describe a noun, the property precedes the actual color (light blue).
Exercise: His three friendly, small, heavy, round, happy, young, brown-and-white puppies met us at the gate.
(Colors combined with “and” are not usually hyphenated as multiple adjectives serving as one, unless included with another adjective, as in “red-and-white-striped shirt.”)
(“brown and white” = adjectives of color)
Many materials or animals can be described with a pattern or not (plain, plaid, lined, checkered).
Exercise: His three friendly, small, heavy, round, happy, young, brown-and-white speckled puppies met us at the gate.
(“brown and white” describes “speckled,” so no comma follows.)
(“speckled” = adjective of pattern)
Adjectives of origin are capitalized if they refer to a specific country (French, Egyptian) or region (Asian, African), but they are not capitalized if they refer to a general region (northern, midwestern) or to background (farm-raised).
Exercise: His three friendly, small, heavy, round, happy, young, brown-and-white speckled farm-raised puppies met us at the gate.
(Using more than one word, as in “farm-raised,” as a single adjective normally requires hyphenation of the words.)
(“farm-raised” = adjective of origin/background)
Adjectives of material explain the material used to make something (plastic, metal).
Exercise: His three friendly, small, heavy, round, happy, young, brown-and-white speckled farm-raised flesh-and-bone puppies met us at the gate.
(Using more than one word as a single adjective normally requires hyphenation of the words.)
(“flesh-and-bone” = adjective of material)
Last in order would be adjectives of purpose, which describe the specialized use of something (grocery cart, dinner plate).
Exercise: His three friendly, small, heavy, round, happy, young, brown-and-white speckled farm-raised flesh-and-bone herding puppies met us at the gate.
(“herding” = adjective telling their purpose [when they grow up])
Some adjective-noun phrases go together regardless of the rule of order. These are not registerable puppies, but if the breed were Miniature American Shepherd puppies, the size of the puppy breed would still go in the name, even though “small” has already described them. (It could be eliminated earlier, but it describes their physical size, so it is still appropriate.) Their origin (“American”) would still go directly before “Shepherd” as the name of the breed.
His three friendly, small, heavy, round, happy, young, brown-and-white speckled farm-raised Heinz-variety flesh-and-bone herding puppies met us at the gate.
Credits: Photo by Anoir Chafik on Unsplash