Arranging Multiple Adjectives



We know an adjective is a word that describes or modifies a noun. We also know that in English adjectives almost always precede their noun, unlike languages such as Spanish and French, in which adjectives more commonly can be placed either before or after a noun depending on their function or emphasis.

Understanding adjectives’ position in a sentence, how then do we order them when several are strung together?

If working with only two adjectives, many of us will follow our instincts and preferences. For example, if we write a phrase such as the black, round talisman, we lead with the color to emphasize it. If we write the round, black talisman, we aim to stress its shape.

When we move up to three adjectives before a noun, descriptions start to either lose or seek their place in line. For instance, would we write the Swedish, square, delicious dessert or the delicious, square, Swedish dessert?

The good news is English offers direction on adjective sequencing. We researched multiple sources for such grammatical guidance. They are not uniform in their suggested order of adjectives, but they provide almost the same components with only a few variances in arrangement and labeling.

For our current discussion, we will refer mainly to the preferred guidelines from perhaps the most recognized source we researched, the online Cambridge Dictionary. According to Cambridge, if we are writing several adjectives before a noun without a preferred order for emphasis, we can arrange them as follows based on their function:

1 quantity one, two, four 7 color black, white, red
2 opinion talented, pretty, boring 8 pattern striped, spotted, checked
3 size big, small, tall 9 origin Swedish, African, Cuban
4 condition or quality lean, easy, cold 10 material glass, wood, brick
5 shape square, round, flat 11 type boxed, exposed, all-inclusive
6 age old, young, ancient 12 purpose cooking, sleeping, teaching

(Note that we modified the table by adding quantity [1] and pattern [8], which appeared among other resources but not with Cambridge.)

Whether in writing or speaking, in daily use we will often not read or hear descriptive words strictly in this order; these guidelines are not fixed. Rather, they serve as a road map for communication that sounds more sequentially natural when needed. In addition, using more than three adjectives before a noun is rare and generally not recommended.

With that being said, using the table above, we can form descriptive expressions with some direction.

Examples:
I would like a piece of the delicious [opinion], square [shape], Swedish [origin] dessert.
Do you still wear those old [age] white [color] shoes?
Those two [quantity] tall [size], lean [physical quality] men work for the firm.
The professor’s four [quantity] old [age], boxed [type] teaching [purpose] files are sure to aid the defense.

(To review or learn more about punctuating adjectives, see Rule 2 of Commas and and our article Commas, Part 3.)

For many of us, our ear for language and our intentions for emphasis will continue to inform how we arrange descriptive words. Should we be in doubt, we can simply refer to the table and help our adjectives find a sense of proper place.

Pop Quiz

In the following sentences, identify the suggested order of the adjectives according to the table in this article.

1. The ________ movie is putting me to sleep.
a) boring, old
b) old, boring

2. The group of ________ musicians just emerged from the plane.
a) Cuban, young, talented
b) talented, young Cuban
c) young, talented Cuban

3. They want ________ boxes for their project.
a) two small, flat wood
b) small two, wood, flat
c) two wood, flat small

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. The ________ movie is putting me to sleep.
a) boring, old [2 opinion, 6 age]
b) old, boring

2. The group of ________ musicians just emerged from the plane.
a) Cuban, young, talented
b) talented, young Cuban [2 opinion, 6 age, 9 origin]
c) young, talented Cuban

3. They want ________ boxes for their project.
a) two small, flat wood [1 quantity, 3 size, 5 shape, 10 material]
b) small two, wood, flat
c) two wood, flat, small

Posted on Tuesday, September 4, 2018, at 11:00 pm

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3 Comments on Arranging Multiple Adjectives

3 responses to “Arranging Multiple Adjectives”

  1. Irene Koivu says:

    I often ignore this rule; we generally do not pause between adjectives in speaking, so why clutter the printed page with extraneous commas? We say, “The old gray mare,” not “The old, gray mare.”

  2. Janet Wood says:

    Thank you! I have seen this referenced before but never in quite such a neat format. I find that my instinctive usage agrees with this most of the time, so I have obviously absorbed the “rules” without ever learning them. It helps when explaining why you want to change the word order for colleagues who are not first language English speakers. I will keep a copy of that little table to share as needed.

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