The English language is easy enough to understand. However, that doesn’t mean it isn’t littered with its own, complicated set of rules. Just take for example, the parts of speech (i.e. nouns, pronouns, adjectives, verbs, adverbs, prepositions, conjunctions, and interjections)—each aspect follows their own set of rules. In this article, we will be talking about the order of descriptive adjectives in English.

First of all, let’s have a quick review on modifiers. In its simplest definition, adjectives are words that describe or explain nouns.  Adverbs, on the other hand are words that describe or explain verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs. Whenever you are asked to describe something like your favorite book, movie, pet, or actress, you are surely going to give an answer that is littered with adjectives; because adjectives in English gives a noun or pronoun a more specific meaning.

Adjectives in English answer the following questions: What kind? Which one? How many? How much? Usually, when asked to describe something, people may use two or more adjectives. For example, when asked to describe your song, you might say something like ‘It’s a soothing, old Japanese lullaby.’ Take note of the order of the words.  Although, saying ‘It’s an old, soothing, Japanese lullaby’ sounds fine as well, the English language has strict rules regarding the order of descriptive adjectives in English.

Let’s start discussing the order of adjectives in English  and its components.

The Royal Order of Adjectives in English

Believe it or not, there is such a thing as ‘The Royal Order of Adjectives.’ Take a look at this example.

A big old black book lay open on the desk.

Now take a look at the next example.

A black big old book lay open on the desk.

Following the rules of the English language, the first sentence is considered correct, while the second one is considered wrong. Why? You may ask. It’s simply because every English-speaking person is expected to follow a set of rules when using adjectives in a sentence. According to this, the order of descriptive adjectives in English is as follows:

  • Determiner
  • Observation
  • Physical Description
    • Size
    • Shape
    • Age
    • Color
  • Origin
  • Material
  • Qualifier

 Without further ado, let us examine this ‘Royal Order of Descriptive Adjectives’.

adjectives in english - the royal order of adjectives in english
“What a beautiful yellow dress.”

Determiners

Determiners are the words that appear before a noun to specify whether it is specific or general. They could be articles or adjectival nouns such as possessive nouns, demonstrative nouns, or numbers which appear before adjectives in English.

Specific determiners are used when the speaker believes that the listener knows exactly what the speaker is talking about.

Example:

  • Articles
    • The dog
  • Possessives
    • My room
    • Your laptop
  • Demonstratives
    • These nuts
    • That house
  • Numbers
    • Ten horses
    • Two girls

General Determiners

 On the other hand, general determiners are used when the speaker is uncertain whether or not the listener knows what the speaker is referring to.

Example:

  • Articles
    • A car
    • An animal
  • Possessives
    • Someone’s blanket
  • Demonstratives
    • Those chairs
  • Numbers
    • Few people
    • Several trees

 Determiners always come first in the order of adjectives in English.

Observation

After the determiner, comes the observation. Observations or opinions are usually subjective in nature. Any adjective in English that seems to describe the extrinsic quality of a noun is considered as an observation/opinion.

Example:

  • Ugly house
  • Shining mirror
  • Expensive necklace
  • Smelly boot
  • Soft pillows
  • Cute baby
  • Wise men

Physical Observation

Now, let’s talk about a noun’s physical description. When it comes to the order of adjectives in English, physical description includes the size, shape, age, and color of the noun being described.

This part is a little bit special, as some people interchange the order of size and shape. Since it’s been done for quite a while, this exchange has been acknowledged as correct as well.

Example:

  • Big old yellow taxi
  • Round antique watch
  • Small rectangular golden carpet
  • Young green fern

Remember, it is quite rare to describe a noun using all four aspects of ‘physical description’. But this is not to say that you can’t do it if you want to.

Origin

Next, let’s talk about ‘origin’. It’s easy enough to understand this part, as ‘origin’ just means “where it (noun) came from”. In the order of adjectives in English, the ‘origin’ always comes after any of the ‘physical description’.

Example:

  • Italian pizza
  • Grecian vase
  • Arabian jewelry
  • Chinese sausage

Material

Then, we have the ‘material’ of the noun being described. This is also easy enough to understand. ‘Material’ pertains to whatever the noun is made of.

Example:

  • Silver spoons
  • Lace gown
  • Wooden sculpture

Qualifier

Last on the order of adjectives in English is the ‘qualifier’. Qualifiers, like determiners, are usually adjectival nouns—nouns that are used to describe other nouns. Any adjective ending in -ing may also function as ‘qualifiers’, as long as they describe the purpose of the noun.

Examples:

  • Evening gown
  • Sports car
  • Marching band
  • Grandfather clock
  • Weather machine

How to Properly Order Adjectives in English

Now that you’ve learned about the proper ordering of adjectives, let’s take a look at some examples to get that ball really rolling. But before we begin, here are just a few things you should keep in mind.

Remember, just as it is rare to see nouns described using all four aspects under ‘physical description’, it is more rare to see a noun described using all nine aspects. Most nouns just use determiner and observation adjectives, while others just focus on physical description and origin. However, that does not mean you can’t use all aspects at the same time.

 Another thing you should know, is that it is possible to use adjectives from the same category (coordinate adjectives) to describe a single noun. There isn’t any limit as to how many adjectives (same category or not) you are allowed to use. Below are complete sentences using the proper order of adjectives in English.

  • That smug-looking fat black Persian cat just scratched me.
  • I showed her several expensive Italian bags but she couldn’t choose any.
  • We went to NYC and saw some amazing, grandiose modern architecture
  • Joey gave me a lovely red Chinese dress.
  • I saw a gorgeous black and white hat at the mall yesterday.

Rules on Punctuating Adjectives in English

When to place commas between adjectives?

Aside from knowing the correct ordering of adjectives, another thing you should be aware of (especially if you are a writer, or hope to be one) is how to properly use punctuation. Since most adjectives appear within the sentence, the only punctuation mark you need be concerned with is the comma. This may sound confusing, but as long as you know the royal order of adjectives, you won’t have much of a hard time. Here are the things you have to consider in comma placement:

You don’t have to place a comma after a determiner.

 Example:

  • INCORRECT: I saw a, juicy red apple.
  • CORRECT: I saw a juicy red apple.
  • INCORRECT: In the ‘Harry Potter’ novels, Fluffy is a, vicious black three-headed dog.
  • CORRECT: In the ‘Harry Potter’ novels, Fluffy is a vicious black three-headed dog.

 You have to place a comma between adjectives from the same category.

 Example:

  • INCORRECT: Fluffy is a mean vicious black three-headed dog.
  • CORRECT: Fluffy is a mean, vicious black three-headed dog.
  • INCORRECT: Molly just baked a batch of fresh chewy chocolate brownies.
  • CORRECT: Molly just baked a batch of fresh, chewy chocolate brownies.

 You don’t have to place a comma between adjectives from different categories.

 Example:

  • INCORRECT: The group is made up of four, handsome, young, Korean men.
  • CORRECT: The group is made up of four handsome young Korean men.
  • INCORRECT: When we passed by the shop, there were already a few, antique, crystal vases on display.
  • CORRECT: When we passed by the shop, there were already a few antique crystal vases on display.

Using the conjunction ‘and’

Next thing you should know is aside from the comma, you may also use the conjunction ‘and’. You may use the conjunction ‘and’ to separate adjectives from the same category. If you choose to use ‘and’, you don’t have to use a comma.

Example:

  • INCORRECT: His father gave him a red, and yellow, and green coat.
  • CORRECT: His father gave him a red and yellow and green coat.
  • INCORRECT: Beware of that weird, and creepy-looking guy standing at the corner of the street.
  • CORRECT: Beware of that weird and creepy-looking guy standing at the corner of the street.

Nouns before adjectives

One of the questions you may ask is: is it possible to place nouns before adjectives? The answer is, of course! Aside from the rules regarding the order of adjectives in English, there are no strict guidelines regarding the placement of the noun.

Example:

  • The doll was an expensive antique from Italy.
  • Oranges from our town are sweet and tasty.

Shared adjectives

Another question you may ask is if it is possible to use an adjective or a group of adjectives to describe more than one noun. Again, the answer is, yes. In the case of shared adjectives, just make sure that the nouns follow each other to avoid any confusion as to what the adjective/s modifies. Take a look at some of the sentences below.

Example:

  • INCORRECT: I brought out a box of expensive spoons and silver forks.
  • CORRECT: I brought out a box of expensive silver spoons and forks.
  • INCORRECT: There are chairs and old plastic tables inside the shed.
  • CORRECT: There are old plastic chairs and tables inside the shed.

Although all the sentences above are correct, the all have different meanings. Take a look at the first sentence of the first pair of sentences, the adjectives ‘expensive’ and ‘silver’ modifies separate nouns: ‘expensive’ modifies ‘spoons’ and ‘silver’ modifies ‘forks. In the second sentence, however, the adjectives ‘expensive’ and ‘silver’ modifies both ‘spoons and fork’. Same thing goes for the second pair of sentences: the adjectives ‘old’ and ‘plastic’ only modifies ‘tables’ in the first sentence, but in the second sentence, ‘old’ and ‘plastic’ modifies both ‘chairs’ and ‘tables’. It is also the same for the third and last pair of sentences.

So, when using shared adjectives, it is important to be mindful of the position of the words. You have to make sure that you don’t cut your string of adjectives (especially when using more than three adjectives) by inserting a noun in between, because doing that can change the meaning of your sentence entirely.

Exceptions to the rules

Like everything else, there will always be exceptions from this set of rules regarding the order of adjectives in English. Take for example the adjectives ‘big’ and ‘huge’.

Example:

  • The big vicious dog attacked the helpless monkey.
  • Those huge flying eagles hovered over the field.

This exception usually applies to ‘shapes’ and ‘observation’; most of the time, an adjective describing the noun’s shape will come before the observation. If you know of any other words that seem to defy the order of adjectives, please do share them with us through the comments.

Learning the rules of properly ordering adjectives will take quite some time, especially for learners of the language. Native English speakers have this down pat, and can do it without having second thoughts. But fear not, for with enough time and practice you too, can master the rules of how to order adjectives in English. Do you have any thoughts about this lesson? Please do share it in the comments.

Read: English Conjunctions and the Things It Connects

Pronoun Examples and its Uses for Writing and Speaking