adjective order in English

The "ugly red wooden box" sounds correct, but the "wooden red ugly box" sounds wrong. There is a "rule" describing the order English adjectives are used in:

  1. Opinion or judgment -- beautiful, ugly, easy, fast, interesting
  2. Size -- small, tall, short, big
  3. Age -- young, old, new, historic, ancient
  4. Shape -- round, square, rectangular
  5. Color -- red, black, green, purple
  6. Nationality -- French, Asian, American, Canadian, Japanese
  7. Material -- wooden, metallic, plastic, glass, paper
  8. Purpose or Qualifier -- foldout sofa, fishing boat, racing car

So: the "beautiful long curved old red Italian steel racing car"

Take care when applying the rule to categorise the adjectives correctly. For example, "The old rotund man read a short old story about an ugly big bear" seems to follow the rules, yet sounds wrong. In this case, "old" and "short" are qualifiers, not merely size or age designations, because "old man" is a social concept on its own, and "short story" is a genre. And "big ugly" is a "commonplace term".

Other languages have similar rules. In English all adjectives go before the noun (except for a few archaisms and for foreign sounding effect): in French, for example, some adjectives go before the noun and some go after it.

This information excerpted from postings to rec.arts.sf.written, October 2000, by
Katie Schwarz, Fred Galvin, and Lucy Kemnitzer

Adjective Placement

When using more than one adjective to describe a noun place the adjectives in the following order before the noun.

NOTE: We usually use no more than three adjectives preceding a noun.

  1. Opinion

    Example: an interesting book, a boring lecture

  2. Dimension

    Example: a big apple, a thin wallet

  3. Age

    Example: a new car, a modern building, an ancient ruin

  4. Shape

    Example: a square box, an oval mask, a round ball

  5. Color

    Example: a pink hat, a blue book, a black coat

  6. Origin

    Example: some Italian shoes, a Canadian town, an American car

  7. Material

    Example: a wooden box, a woolen sweater, a plastic toy

Here are some examples of nouns modified with three adjectives in the correct order based on the list above. Notice that the adjectives are not separated by commas.

  • A wonderful old Italian clock. (opinion - age - origin)
  • A big square blue box. (dimension - shape - color)
  • A disgusting pink plastic ornament. (opinion - color - material)
  • Some slim new French trousers. (dimension - age - origin)

Check your understanding of adjective placement with the following quiz.

More Grammar Help

Posted by Lynn*

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