Adjectives are used to describe people, places, and things, and good writers are able to write descriptions that are varied and creative. While you’ve probably created strings of adjectives before a noun, without much thought, you may sometimes wonder if they’re in the right order. Following are some guidelines.
The rules of order
In English, adjectives are listed in a specific order for a specific reason—using any other order might lead to confusion. And in most cases, the adjective(s) precede(s) the noun being modified.
Incorrect: She carried a leather beautiful handbag.
Corrected: She carried a beautiful leather handbag.
Incorrect: He had a plastic key small ring.
Correct: He had a small plastic key ring.
There are a number of published lists (of varying length) that show the order of adjectives before a noun. The list shown below is an amalgamation of some of these. It’s unlikely that anyone would ever use all of these adjectives in one sentence—the upper end is usually three. The reason is that, if you use more than three, you may lose your readers in a flurry of words.
However, regardless of how many you use, they usually need to be presented in the following order (the lower the category number, the farther it is away from the noun or the earlier it appears in the phrase of sentence). Note: The order may sometimes be changed to emphasize something.
Before the adjectives:
Determiner—This includes articles (e.g., a, an, the), quantities (e.g., ten, several, some), possessives (e.g., my, your, his, her, our, their), and demonstratives (e.g., this, these, that, those)
Adverb (e.g., very, really)
- Order (e.g., first, second, third, last)
- Frequency (e.g., frequent, infrequent, rare, common)
- Degree (e.g., extreme, a little, somewhat, very)
- Observation / Opinion / Attitude (e.g., rare, beautiful, cold, ugly, horrible, tasty, delicious, heroic, retired, carefree, nice, difficult, enthusiastic, soft, cool, opinionated, expensive, priceless)
- Size / Height (e.g., little, small, tiny, petite, tall, minuscule, big, huge, large, enormous)
- Physical quality (e.g., thick, thin, fat, flat, smooth, long, messy)
- Shape / Length / Weight (e.g., round, oval, square, rectangular, oblong)
- Condition (e.g., clean, wet, rich, hungry)
- Age (e.g., old, young, ancient, youthful, new, modern)
- Color (e.g., red, green, glue, gray, yellow, pink)
- Pattern / Design (e.g., striped, dotted, checked, flowery, zigzag)
- Origin (e.g., American, Dutch, European, Hawaiian, Japanese, Asian)
- Material (e.g., wooden, metallic, golden, velvet, plastic, aluminum, cotton, silk, paper, clay, synthetic)
- Type (e.g., general-purpose, four-sided, U-shaped). This can also be a noun that’s used as an adjective (e.g., hound dog, evening gown, bumper crop).
- Purpose / Use (e.g., cleaning, cooking, dining, sleeping, touring, hammering)
Note: Category numbers 5-7 may sometimes be combined.
After the adjectives
Noun (e.g., car, house, table, dog, window, store, suit, dress)
Examples of adjective order (showing category number)
It was made of an (4) ordinary, (10) blue, (13) plastic plate.
She baked a (7) round, (12) French, (14) holiday bread.
She was a (4) stunning, (5) tall, (6) svelte, (9) youngish, (10) blond-haired, (12) Swedish woman.
Adjectives joined by and
And may be used when there are two or more adjectives of the same type or when the adjectives refer to different parts of the same thing:
It was a black and white striped wall.
When to use commas
Some adjective strings require commas while others don’t. Here are some guidelines.
Use a comma between adjectives when they’re in the same category (e.g., The red, white and blue flag.).
Do not use a comma between adjectives:
- after a determiner (e.g., Ten red, white and blue flags.)
- when they’re from different categories (e.g. The large red flag.).
- between the final adjective and the noun it modifies (e.g., The red, white and blue flag.).
If and can be inserted between adjectives, and the meaning of the sentence (or phrase) does not change (and still makes sense) AND you can reverse the order of the adjectives and the meaning is still clear, then you would use a comma between the adjectives (e.g., The blue, red and white flag.). Note: The choice of using a comma before the and in the examples above (known as the Oxford comma) is a personal choice; though it’s usually reserved for longer phrase lists and not for short single word lists.
For effective communication with your audience, it’s important to follow the rules of adjective order when there are multiple modifiers. Use appropriate word choices, word order, and punctuation to share your message and create reader understanding.
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