Order of Adjectives

I was searching for something or other the other day and I stumbled across this article on Quora, an answer to a question about what is the most difficult grammar rule applying to commonly used words in the English language. And the top answer was about a grammar rule I’d never heard of. Me, the English student, composition teacher, professor, and language geek.

Order of adjectives.

That is, if someone were to say “the red, big ball,” you know that it sounds wrong (“the big, red ball” sounds much more correct), but it’s hard to explain why. When trying to teach non-English speakers what order to place adjectives, it seems very arbitrary. It turns out that there are rules that govern this. Basically, adjectives should be categorized and then arranged in the following order: Quantity, Opinion, Size, Age, Shape, Color, Origin, Material, Purpose.

So, in the example above, “red” is a color adjective and “big” is a size adjective, so “big” must be placed before “red” in the example above. When trying to think about how to apply this rule, you have to remember a seemingly arbitrary order and then classify your adjectives before you speak, which is a slow process. This one generally has to be learned through repetition by hearing examples over and over until it becomes instinctive.

And for examples of how this works see this page and this one

I think it is really cool how we all seem to instinctively know this really complicated rule and apply it by gut feeling, this hierarchy of eight categories. And this is yet another reason why English is so very difficult for non-native speakers.

So there you have it: geeky post for the day.

One Response to Order of Adjectives

  1. Enbrethiliel March 3, 2014 at 3:53 am #


    I didn’t learn about these until I started teaching. My reaction was similar to your enthusiastic one. =) But when I made it the grammar lesson of the fortnight, I discovered that not all high school students approach my level of geekiness. They were more unimpressed that they had to learn rules for something they felt they could already do well.

    But how it turned out was either that they were wrong about their intuitive capacities or that knowing there’s a rule makes one second guess oneself, because they did pretty badly on the quizzes and on the test in the final exam. Not their most positive English class experience, I’m afraid. =(

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