Advanced English Grammar: Explaining Adjective Order in English

popofatticus/Flickr

popofatticus/Flickr

English can prove to be one of the hardest languages to grasp for many reasons, and one of those reasons is the way that adjectives are used.

In this article, we take a look at the rules concerning adjectives in the English language, and why they are considered illogical for many non-English speaking cultures.

The order of adjectives is important in the English language. Not only are they always placed in front of nouns they modify, but there is also specific order to their placement. This order is known as the ‘Royal Order of Adjectives,’ according to The Editor’s Blog, and is as follows:

  • General opinion
  • Specific opinion
  • Size
  • Shape (square, round)
  • Age
  • Color (red, black, white)
  • Nationality
  • Material (wooden, brick)

So, for example, adjectives pertaining to size precede adjectives pertaining to age, which generally precede adjectives pertaining to color.

Based on these rules, in English you would say:
One (quantity), beautiful (opinion), small (size), round (shape), old (age), pink (colour), leather (material) bag.

Comparing the Use of Adjectives in Different Languages

Tim Regan/Flickr

Tim Regan/Flickr

Compared to other languages such as Spanish, Mandarin and Italian, the order of English adjectives are a lot more rigid. While other languages do have rules, they are not so set in stone.

Interestingly, most native English speakers are actually unaware there is a particular order to adjectives. This is because they learn it intrinsically as they make and form their first sentences as infants. The reason for the strict order of adjectives in English is still very much a matter of debate.

Why the Order of English Adjectives Is Illogical

According to Visual Thesaurus, the rules of adjectives in the English language are pointless as it is unusual for someone in everyday speech or writing to use three or more adjectives to ‘puff up’ a noun. The end result, it says, is making the articulator sound less authentic, rather than more.

A Complicated Rule

Many grammar experts also claim that the rigid order of adjectives is difficult to grasp when applying it to real world examples.

Enrica Rosato of Carnegie Mellon University argues in her paper, ‘Adjective order in English,’ that the Royal Order of Adjectives is problematic. The issue with the first two categories is understanding the distinction between ‘general’ and ‘specific’ opinion. What’s the difference?

The second issue, she says, has to do with the relative order of shape and age.

Importance of Adjectives

Procsilas Moscas/Flickr

Procsilas Moscas/Flickr

Another reason why the order of adjectives is illogical is because the further the adjectives are away from the noun, the less intrinsic they become.

For example, if you want to focus on the size of a house when describing its features, it would be very difficult to make the word pertaining to its size the most intrinsic, as the rule would apply according to the Royal Order. An adjective describing size should come before those pertaining age, color and material.

Another way to look at this is that the first word before a noun is considered the most important word, as this is what is seen or read first.

To understand this further, we can compare the use of adjectives in English to Italian.

Alex Brown/Flickr

Alex Brown/Flickr

A wine label in Italian might read ‘Red dry wine.’ However, this appears incorrect in English, where it would be described as a ‘dry, red wine.’ So, in Italian, the fact that a wine is red is most important, whereas in England, the fact that the wine is dry is the most important.

To make things even more complicated, most people looking to buy a wine would first start with the type, red, white or rosé, and then consider texture and taste.

Getting a Good Grasp on English adjectives

As 60% of the world’s languages use adjectives after nouns, and English is complex and rigid, it can prove tricky for students to get a real hold on the language. This is particularly true if your native language has no similarities to English.

If you’d like to find out if you are using adjectives and nouns in the correct way, and would like to improve your English skills, Contact Us to find an English speaking tutor near you.