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Concourse 2

Adjective ordering


If you like complicated rules, then many websites and most textbooks will give them to you.

Usually, in textbooks you will see a rule something like this:

Adjectives in English follow this order:

  1. Quantity or number
  2. Quality or opinion
  3. Size
  4. Age
  5. Shape
  6. Color
  7. Proper adjective
  8. Purpose or qualifier

So we get an adjective phrase like this:

One beautiful, huge, old, round, blue, Chinese, flower pot


So what's the problem?

There are four problems:

  1. The rule doesn't always work
  2. The grammar is wrong
  3. Nobody uses so many adjectives before the noun
  4. It's impossible to remember the rule


Problem 1: The rule doesn't always work

The rule will work, if you can remember it, for many adjectives but not for all of them.
For example, we can say:
    The lovely, huge, old, green, Greek, Volvo lorry was parked outside
but we can also say:
    The huge, green, lovely, old, Greek, Volvo lorry was parked outside
We can also say:
    The green, circular thing
    The circular green thing
It depends, very often, on what the speaker thinks is important.


Problem 2: The grammar is wrong

There are three mistakes in the grammar here which just make your life difficult.

First mistake: Determiners are not adjectives

In the list of rules above, the first word is described as 'quantity or number'.  It is true that these always come first but:

  1. They are not adjectives and
  2. That's not the end of the list

What we are talking about here are what is called determiners which tell us about the noun.  They do not describe the noun, so they are not adjectives.  There are lots of different kinds of determiners and they always come first, before any adjectives:

a, an and the always come first:
    The old car
    A new student

this, that, these, those always come first:
    This silly idea
    Those clever people

question words
which, what, whose always come first:
    Whose beautiful car is that?
    What interesting things did you see?
    Which big house is his?
my, your, their etc. always come first:
    My happy experience
    Her awful idea
    Our beautiful home

some, all, every, each, three, four, five thousand, most etc. always come first:
    Four old men
    Every young child
    Most happy families


Determiners always come first.

Second mistake: Adjectives and Classifiers are different

There is a difference between an adjective (which describes the noun) and a classifier (which tells us what sort of noun it is).  If you understand this difference, life becomes easier.
For example, we can say:
    an old man
    a very silly man
    a sadder man
    the man is young
    the man is very happy

so old, silly, young and happy are all real adjectives (and there are thousands more, of course)
we can also say:
    a wonderful party
    the party was great
    a totally splendid party

    the party was completely awful
so wonderful, great, splendid and awful are also real adjectives.
we can say:
    a football shirt
but we CANNOT say:
    a more football shirt
    an absolutely football shirt
    the shirt was football
(because football is a noun, not an adjective at all)
so football is not an adjective.  It's a classifier and tells us what kind of shirt it is.
Here are some more examples of classifiers:
    She had a lovely birthday party
(lovely is and adjective but birthday is a classifier)
    He is a young police officer
(young is an adjective but police is a classifier)

Classifiers always come directly before the noun.

Third mistake: Variable and Invariable adjectives are different

Invariable adjectives cannot be made more or less.  Something is either red or it is not.  Something is either perfect or it is not.  We cannot usually say:
    more perfect
    more French
We can say:
    the Spanish food
    the food was Indian
because Spanish and Indian are certainly adjectives but we CANNOT say:
    the food was Indianer
    the man was Germaner
because Spanish, red, perfect, French, Indian and German are all invariable adjectives and these come before classifiers (if there is one).

Invariable adjectives come before classifiers (if there is a classifier).

write Here's a quick test.
What are the determiners, adjectives and classifiers in these sentences?
Which adjectives are invariable?
Click on the table when you have written your answer.

adjective task


Problem 3: Nobody uses so many adjectives before the noun


It is quite rare to have more than two or three adjectives before a noun.  When we need more, we make some of the adjectives come after the noun and link them with verbs like be, look, seem, taste, appear etc.
Like this:
Instead of:
    The interesting, huge, old, blue pot.
we will usually say something like:
    I thought the huge, blue pot was interesting and it seemed old.
    The interesting old pot was blue and huge.
And instead of:
    This is delicious well-cooked, French, carrot soup
we prefer:
    This French carrot soup is well onsidered plain wrongcooked and tastes delicious

The general rule is to avoid more than three adjectives before the noun.


Problem 4: It's impossible to remember the rule

OK.  Without scrolling back to the top of the screen, can you remember the order of the 8 items in the rule taken from a text book?
You are not alone.
We need a simpler rule which we can remember.  Here it is:

Put adjectives before nouns in this order:

  1. First: something which is only my opinion
    1. words like beautiful, ugly, interesting, likeable, horrible etc. are only my opinion.  They are not facts.
  2. Second: relative words
    1. words like small, large, tall etc. are relative.  A mouse is small but only in relation to me.  A mouse is huge in relations to a virus or a grain of sand.
  3. Third: invariable adjectives
    1. words like blue, perfect, plastic, electronic etc. are not changeable.  Something cannot be more plastic; it is either plastic or it is not.
  4. Fourth: classifiers
    1. these are often other nouns and tell us what kind of thing we have.
      the words school, hospital, traffic and garden are all classifiers in
      the school office
      a hospital doctor
      a traffic jam
      a garden party

Here's an example:

the  silly little English school girl
determiners come first  this is my opinion and is subjective this is a relative adjective: a little girl is huge compared to a mouse an invariable adjective the classifier tells us what sort of girl the noun

Normally, of course, we do not have so many adjectives and other words before the noun so we would prefer:

The little English school girl is silly.

Simple rule?

Put changeable, subjective things first and unchangeable, objective things last, nearest the noun.

Here's what's meant:

Some lovely, new, leather, walking shoes
ordering adjectives

 + noun

Now try a test to see if you can remember all this.