Enumeration of Adjectives (with Examples Showing Comma Usage)

by Craig Shrives

Enumeration of Adjectives

"Enumeration of adjectives" means using more than one adjective consecutively, i.e., lining up multiple adjectives.

Examples of Enumeration of Adjectives

Here are some examples of enumeration of adjectives. In all examples on this page, the noun being modified by the adjectives is in bold.
  • a small feminine hand
  • thick, acrid, poisonous smoke
  • (Note that this example has commas between the adjectives. There is more on this to come.)
  • clever, handsome, and proactive man
  • (Note that this example has commas between the adjectives and the word "and." There is more on this to come.)

Commas between Adjectives

Writers are sometimes unsure when to use commas with multiple adjectives. The rules about using commas (and conjunctions, usually the word "and") in a list of adjectives are relaxed:

For TWO adjectives:
  • vast, inhospitable moor (with a comma)
  • vast and inhospitable moor (with "and")
  • vast inhospitable moor (with nothing)
For THREE or more adjectives:
  • vast, inhospitable, windy moor (commas between)
  • vast, inhospitable and windy moor
    (comma(s) between and then "and" )
  • (With this style, follow your convention; i.e., put a comma before "and" if you advocate the Oxford Comma.)
  • vast inhospitable windy moor (nothing between)
  • vast inhospitable and windy moor (nothing and then "and")
Read more about using commas in lists (including lists of adjectives).

The Order of Adjectives in English

The order of adjectives in English is opinion, size, age, shape, colour, origin, material, and purpose. For example:
  • A lovely, small, Victorian, oval, black, Italian, oak, soup spoon
Read more about the order of adjectives.

A Widget to Teach the Order of Adjectives

Here is a widget that teaches and tests the order of adjectives. Click on anything that's green or has a green border. Have a play!

This widget is in Learning Mode. Use the 'add' and 'remove' buttons to change the adjectives modifying the noun. You can also change the adjectives using the 'shuffle' button.
OpinionGetting ready...Getting ready...
SizeGetting ready... Getting ready...
AgeGetting ready...Getting ready...
ShapeGetting ready...Getting ready...
ColourGetting ready...Getting ready...
OriginGetting ready...Getting ready...
MaterialGetting ready...Getting ready...
PurposeGetting ready...Getting ready...
Getting ready...

Why Should I Care about Enumeration of Adjectives?

Here are three noteworthy points related to the enumeration of adjectives.

(Point 1) Punctuate your string of adjectives correctly.

Remember that the rules for commas and conjunctions (e.g., "and," "but," "or") with a string of adjectives used attributively (i.e., before the noun it modifies) are relaxed, but you should be consistent with your style.

When the string of adjectives is used predicatively (i.e., after the noun it modifies), you should switch to normal writing rules, including your local protocol for using the Oxford comma.
  • The terrain is rocky and dangerous.
  • The terrain is rocky, isolated and dangerous. (for those who don't use the Oxford comma)
  • The terrain is rocky, isolated, and dangerous. (for those who do use the Oxford comma)

(Point 2) Avoid incomprehensible strings of "adjectives."

In business writing, it is not unusual to encounter a string of incomprehensible adjectives. Look at the following sentences:
  • Factor in the service level agreement completion time. (difficult to understand)
  • Engineers will install the email retrieval process improvement software. (difficult)
In such sentences (which are especially common in technical writing), the "adjectives" are not in fact adjectives but attributable nouns (nouns used as adjectives). Noun strings like these are difficult to follow.

To avoid such "adjective" strings, do one or all of the following:
  • Completely rearrange the sentence.
  • Convert one of the "adjectives" to a verb.
  • Use hyphens to highlight the compound adjectives.
Here are the reworked sentences:
  • Factor in the time to complete the service-level agreement. (better)
  • Engineers will install the software to improve the email-retrieval process. (better)
Read more about fixing an incomprehensible string of "adjectives" (attributable nouns).

(Point 3) Be careful with your order of adjectives.

Adjectives that modify the same noun are called "coordinate adjectives." Coordinate adjectives should follow the precedence list given above (i.e., opinion, size, age, shape, colour, origin, material, and purpose). Be careful though. Not all adjectives in a string of adjectives are coordinate. Often, one of the adjectives is inseparable from the noun because they belong together as a recognised thing (i.e. a single semantic unit).
  • A Chinese wooden guitar.
  • A wooden Spanish guitar.
  • (As a "Spanish guitar" is a thing, "Spanish" doesn't take its place according to the precedence list. It cannot be separated from "guitar." In effect, "Spanish guitar" is a compound noun (a noun comprising more than one word), which is why we've bolded the whole term.)
Don't think about it too much. Just follow your instincts. You'll get it right.

Read more about non-coordinate adjectives on the adjectives page.
Interactive Exercise
Here are three randomly selected questions from a larger exercise, which can be edited, printed to create an exercise worksheet, or sent via email to friends or students.

See Also

Take a test on the enumeration of adjectives What are adjectives? What are compound adjectives? Commas in lists Compound adjectives Demonstrative adjectives Enumeration of adjectives Indefinite adjectives Interrogative adjectives Predicate adjectives Participles Possessive adjectives