The Order of Adjectives in English

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The Order of Adjectives in English

Before we talk about the order of adjectives, we need to understand the difference between cumulative adjectives and coordinate adjectives.

the order of cumulative adjectives in English


Cumulative Adjectives. Cumulative adjectives work together to modify their noun. They cumulate (or combine together) as they get nearer to the noun to create a more specific meaning. Cumulative adjectives must appear in a specific order, and they cannot be separated by commas or the word "and." Look at these examples:
  • a handmade mixing bowl
  • those unsold goalkeeper gloves
  • my first yellow taxi cab
As the order of these adjectives cannot be changed, they are cumulative adjectives. As such, they cannot be separated by commas or the word "and." Let's put them to the test...
  • a mixing handmade bowl
  • (Changing the order stops the adjectives cumulating their meaning as they get nearer to "bowl." That's why changing the order sounds wrong.)
  • those unsold and goalkeeper gloves
  • (Adding "and" interrupts the adjectives cumulating their meaning as they get nearer to "gloves." That's why adding "and" sounds wrong.)
  • my first, yellow, taxi cab
  • (Using a "comma" interrupts the adjectives cumulating their meaning as they get nearer to "cab." That's why adding commas is wrong. However, these words still sound okay. Well, to refine the test, instead of inserting a comma, insert "and." If your phrase sounds awful, the commas are wrong.)
Remember that cumulative adjectives cumulate as they get nearer the noun. They demand a certain order, and they won't tolerate any interruptions with commas or conjunctions (e.g., "and," "or," "but").

The Order of Cumulative Adjectives in English

Notice that this page started with the title "The Order of Adjectives," but now we have the title "The Order of Cumulative Adjectives." We've refined the title because only cumulative adjectives demand this order:
PlacementType of AdjectiveExamples
1
  • Article,
  • Demonstrative Determiner, or
  • Possessive Determiner
  • a, an, the
  • this, that, those, these
  • my, your, his, our
  • 2Quantityone, three, ninety-nine
    3Opinion or Observationbeautiful, clever, witty, well-mannered
    4Sizebig, medium-sized, small
    5Physical Qualitythin, lumpy, cluttered
    6Shapesquare, round, long
    7Ageyoung, middle-aged, old
    8Colour/Colorred, blue, purple
    9Origin or ReligionFrench, Buddhist
    10Material metal, leather, wooden
    11Type L-shaped, two-sided, all-purpose
    12
  • Purpose, or
  • Attributive Noun
  • mixing, drinking, cooking
  • service, football, head
  • Coordinate Adjectives. Coordinate adjectives are also multiple adjectives that modify the same noun, but, with coordinate adjectives, their order is far less important because they can be used individually with the noun. In other words, they do not cumulate their meaning with other adjectives. Also, coordinate adjectives should be separated with commas or "and" to make it clear they're not cumulative adjectives.
    • white, lumpy spots
    • white and lumpy spots
    • lumpy, white spots
    • lumpy and white spots
    • (These are coordinate adjectives because they can be reversed or separated with a comma or "and.")
    The word "coordinate" means "equal in rank." Coordinate adjectives can only come from the Placements 3-11 in the above table, but their order isn't important. Often, they will come from the same category. When this happens, it is normal to use "and" between them. For example:
    • sweet, black and yellow, sticky toffees

    Be Careful with Recognized Things

    Be careful with the precedence list. Sometimes, an adjective and a noun are inseparable because they belong together as a single semantic unit (i.e., a recognized thing). For example:
    • my wooden Spanish guitar
    • (As a "Spanish guitar" is a recognized thing, "Spanish" doesn't take its place according to the precedence list. It cannot be separated from "guitar.")
    • my Spanish wooden guitar
    • (This is also correct, but it's different. These are cumulative adjectives taking their order according to the precedence list. This could be a bass guitar made in Spain.)
    Here are some more examples:
    • He was a deluded fat cat in City of London.
    • The rock ripped his expensive wet suit.
    • The gamble was a long shot.
    • (It doesn't matter what adjectives accompany these terms (called compound nouns), the shaded words must always be together. This is why purpose is the last category in the order of adjectives. When you add an adjective like "mixing" to "bowl," you create a recognized thing, "mixing bowl.")

    Let Your Instinct Guide You

    Rather bizarrely, native English speakers can order their adjectives correctly without ever being taught this precedence list (or even being aware that adjectives are meant to follow an established order). So, if you're a native English speaker, you should let your instinct guide you. Trust me. You know this list well enough, even if you don't know you do.

    Other Versions of This List

    The list of precedence given on this page is not universally agreed, but all versions are pretty similar. More specifically, you might find other references that give physical quality, shape, and age in a different order.
    Ready for the Test?
    Here is a confirmatory test for this lesson.

    This test can also be:
    • Edited (i.e., you can delete questions and play with the order of the questions).
    • Printed to create a handout.
    • Sent electronically to friends or students.

    See Also

    What are adjectives? Commas in a list of adjectives