Little, British, wonderful, copper, hi-tech goggles?

January 21, 2017

 

Why does "wonderful, little, hi-tech, British, copper goggles" sound better than "little, British, wonderful, copper, hi-tech goggles"?

 

Do you remember your high school English textbook listing the correct order when using multiple adjectives to describe a noun?  Have you ever noticed that the order of your adjectives just don't sound right when you write or say them in a certain order?  If someone asked you--as a writer--to write the guidelines for the order of adjectives in the English language, could you do it?

 

We all know determiners (e.g., a, an, the, every, each, four, many, my, your, that, third) come first when describing a noun--whether we call them determiners or by more specific names or don't call them anything--but what happens next?

 

It is rare to actually use more than three adjectives to describe a noun, and it often sounds unnatural to use even three.  However, try some of these and see if you can determine the obscure grammar rule about the correct order of adjectives.  (I'm not including any commas so I won't give any hints.)

 

Which of each pair of phrases is correct?

 

Handsome misunderstood centuries-old Hungarian vampire

Hungarian centuries-old misunderstood handsome vampire

 

Mischievous little old grandmother

Little mischievous old grandmother

 

New striped blue square boring silk scarf

Boring new square blue striped silk scarf

 

Leather-bound ancient interesting mathematics book

Interesting ancient leather-bound mathematics book

 

Delicious hot large round pepperoni pizza

Large hot delicious pepperoni round pizza

 

Beautiful stubborn young American girl

Young American stubborn beautiful girl

 

Brown brand-new heavy gardening ceramic trowel

Heavy brand-new brown ceramic gardening trowel

 

Humid lush terraformed green m-class moon

Lush m-class humid green terraformed moon

 

Tight dirty faded flannel shirt

Faded flannel dirty tight shirt

 

Oceanic harmful excessive debris

Excessive harmful oceanic debris

 

The chart below will give you the answers and the reasons.  The order of adjectives follows guidelines, rather than strict grammar rules.  So you will find some minor differences among sources.  Most (1, 2) agree that 'age' should follow 'condition'.  However, I prefer the order listed in the chart. (3)

 

All agree, however, that opinions come before facts.  The important thing is to realize that some lists of adjectives sound better than others, and some are downright wrong.

 

I won't even discuss those adjectives that can only appear after a noun and linking verb (e.g., glad, ill, annoyed) or why it is idiomatically correct to say "a hot cup of coffee" when the coffee is hot, not the cup.   :o)

 

(1)  Williams, Thomas. "Adjective Word Order." Adjective Word Order | Learn English. Accessed January 21, 2017. http://www.ecenglish.com/learnenglish/lessons/adjective-word-order.

 

(2)  "Adjectives and order of adjectives in English writing --Today's Free English Lesson on MyEnglishTeacher.net." Adjectives and order of adjectives in English writing --Today's Free English Lesson on MyEnglishTeacher.net. 2001. Accessed January 21, 2017. http://myenglishteacher.net/adjectivesorder.html.

 

(3)  Forsyth, Mark. The Elements of Eloquence: how to turn the perfect English phrase. London: Icon, 2013.

 

 

 

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