Great Green Dragon – English Adjective Order

Have you ever wondered why ‘a red, large coat’ just doesn’t sound quite right in English? Did you know that in English, we have a preference for adjective order? This is especially true when they go before a noun? If you aren’t a native speaker, how can you become used to certain adjectives going in certain places, especially if your own language does not follow the same system?

Well, one way is to look at a variety of sentences in English and try to come up with some rules, which is exactly what the Cambridge Dictionary did. Fortunately for us, they made this handy table:

As a native speaker, this is something that we do instinctively rather than thinking about what order the adjectives should go in. To be honest, before I started getting into linguistics a few years ago, I had no idea that there was a specific order! I certainly would not have been able to explain it to a nonnative speaker had they asked me.

As a basic rule of thumb, start with what you think about the object. Whether you love it or you hate it, that opinion comes first. Then, generally, work your way from the least basic characteristic to the most basic characteristic. If we use an example of a toilet:

  1. Your opinion: for example, an ugly toilet.
  2. The size of the toilet: it can be anywhere from microscopic (what is it, a toilet for ants?!?!?!) to ginormous. With such a range of possibilities (whether real or not), this characteristic is probably the least descriptive. Imagine yourself in a room and someone was only talking in adjectives. It is likely that ‘large’ or ‘small’ wouldn’t really narrow down the noun that they are trying to describe.
  3. The physical quality: a dirty toilet. Thinking about the room again, it is possible that ‘dirty’ would be more descriptive than ‘large’ (although it would naturally depend on the state of the room).
  4. Shape: a square toilet. Again, thinking about the room, describing a noun as a square would remove all non-square nouns from this game of ‘guess what I am trying to describe because I have forgotten its name’, which is probably more than the adjectives ‘large’ or ‘dirty’ would do.
  5. Age: a new toilet. Assuming that everything in the room isn’t new (= a well-established bathroom and all we have done is buy a new toilet), ‘new’ would discard more objects than the previous categories of adjectives.
  6. Colour: a red toilet. Again, this would really depend on the room, but generally, a red toilet would stand out in, say, a white bathroom, no matter what the size, shape or physical quality.
  7. Origin: a Turkish toilet. Congratulations that you were able to fly in a toilet from Turkey! In some instances, this would radically change what the receiver understands. For example, toilets around the worlds have different standards; what you may find as a ‘normal’ toilet in one country may be completely alien in another one. This can be quite a divisive (in terms of dividing up the room); more so than the previous adjectives.
  8. Material: a wooden toilet. The material this toilet is made of definitely is a more basic characteristic than, say, its size. A wooden toilet is much different from a porcelain toilet, but both could potentially be large and square, for example.
  9. Type: a U-shaped toilet. This naturally differentiates the toilet from other types of toilets, such as more rounded ones.
  10. Purpose: What it is used for is potentially the most basic description that one can give. For example, a communal toilet tells a reader/listener that it is a public one used by many people.

In the end, we have an ugly, small, dirty, square, new, red, Turkish, wooden, U-shaped, communal toilet (I think I would take it back if I were you!). If you move any of the adjectives around in the description, suddenly the description sounds nonnative and something feels ‘off’.   So what happens if you have a number or some kind of quantity? Well, that goes at the very beginning of your list. For example, we have five ugly, small, dirty, square, new, red, Turkish, wooden, U-shaped, communal toilets.  

So what happens if we have adjectives that don’t come before a noun, but instead come after the conjunctive verb ‘to be’ (i.e. something is … )? In this case, English is more flexible, although it still generally follows the same adjective order. So you could say ‘This toilet is wooden and Turkish’ or ‘This toilet is Turkish and wooden’. Because the ‘and’ breaks up the descriptive list (no matter how many adjectives there are), the list is more flexible in this form than in the original one we discussed.

Unfortunately, like every rule in English, there are some exceptions. When adjectives come into contact with something known as reduplication, which is when two words sound very similar but one of the phonemes (sounds) is different, such as ‘lovey-dovey’ or ‘drip-drop’. Especially in the case of ablaut reduplication, where the change is a vowel sound, there is a very specific rule for which sound (and hence which word) goes first: I, then A, then O. In other words, it will always be ‘drip-drop’ and never ‘drop-drip’. ‘Bish bash bosh’ also won’t make native speakers do a double-take (although the words themselves mean nothing) while ‘bosh bash bish’ sounds as though it is in the wrong order (again, without meaning).

This rule also explains why exceptions can be found to the adjective list from above. For example, English speakers say ‘the big, bad wolf’ instead of the ‘bad, big wolf’. While ‘big, bad wolf’ doesn’t follow the list, it does follow the ablaut reduplication principle. ‘Big’ and ‘bad’ are close enough where that rule applies and when it applies, it trumps the adjective list rule.

So why I, then A, then O? Well, it might have something to do with you form vowels:

Image result for pronunciation chart english vowels

As you can see from the table, it depends on where you form vowels. The ‘i’ sounds form towards the front of the mouth and tend to be unrounded (differentiating it from ‘e’ sounds). The ‘a’ sounds, while more scattered around the chart above, also generally form in the front of the mouth. Finally, the ‘o’ sounds form towards the back of the mouth. From this, we can extrapolate that the order of sounds for this IAO-rule is due to where the vowels form in the mouth. There is precedence for those formed towards the front and moving towards the back of the mouth.

So how can you practice adjective order? Well, you can write out sentences or you can find exercises online, such asĀ this website, which will help correct you. If you are interested in learning more about the English language, visit my English Language Materials page.

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