Adjective Order: A tutorial

Languages are difficult to learn. One could say that learning a second language is a difficult thing to do, depending on what you try at least. Children tend to learn words quicker than adults, but the words alone will not help foreign individuals sound professional. Most people know a few words from at least one other language, but to become completely fluent is impressive. My wife’s second language is English. She speaks English as well as anyone I know, but certain nuances still confuse/irritate her now and then. I would like to shed some light on an aspect that those who speak English as a second language may have difficulty with.

Adjective order is a grammatical rule that many Americans cannot recall learning. To us, it just flows from our thoughts in the correct order, and when we encounter something out of place, it just sounds wrong. Let’s take, for example, Clifford, the red big dog. There is an error in that sentence, and your mind may have corrected it while reading, but if you read it word for word, you can tell it isn’t correct. It is obvious that if you understand the english language, you know the answer is Clifford, the big red dog, but why?

The English language has a ridiculous number of rules. However, these rules are essential in learning to speak coherently. Years and years ago, some old nerdy bookworm decided to craft these rules and spread the word so members of the community could speak more efficient. The rule we focus on here separates adjectives, words that describe or modify another person or thing into 9 different categories. In the correct, order these categories are article determiners and quantifiers, observation, size, shape, age, color, origin, material, and qualifier.

Articles, determiners, and quantifiers are little words that precede and modify nouns. They tell the reader/listener whether we’re referring to a specific or general thing, such as, “I can’t wait to drive A car,” or “I can’t wait to drive THE car.” Also, they are used to tell how much or how many (many dogs, a few cats, or a couple of birds). To a native English speaker, the placement of this type of adjective is almost never incorrect. However, these words often confuse those whose first language is not a romance language. It could take a whole other tutorial to feel comfortable with these.

Observations are limiter adjectives. These adjectives are best described as opinions, but don’t take that to mean the adjective cannot be factual. For example, one person could see a woman and say, “she is a beautiful woman.” Another person may not feel the same way, so these are examples of an opinionated observation. Other observations, which are factual, can be a rusty car.

Size and shape are sometimes put in the same category, so some literature experts would combine them to have a total of 8 categories instead of 9. This category is relatively straightforward. In the example above, I used the big red dog. Big describes the nouns size. An example of shape is a square pizza.

Age adjectives give a reader/listener an idea of how old or new the noun is. Looking through a thesaurus for synonyms of old and new will cover most of the adjectives used in this category. Some examples are, the ancient book, or the new puppy.

The color category does exactly what you think. It describes a nouns color. If you can think of the color, then it belongs in this category, no matter how made up that color may be. In some ways this category is confusing though, because sometimes a color could also a noun. For example, the orange basketball. In this instance we are using the color orange, not the noun orange, a delicious fruit.

The origin denotes the source of the noun. These adjectives are mostly describe what country the noun came from. Filipino food is good, or American baseball is more entertaining. There are some exceptions to this rule, but we will get to exceptions later.

Material adjectives describe what something is made of; a wooden boat, or a metal bar. This category doesn’t come with much confusion, but just like with color, sometimes these adjectives can be a noun. An example of this would be, “a shiny metal.”

The qualifier is the final limiter. This category is often regarded as part of the noun. There is nothing between the qualifier and the noun. The qualifier is most commonly a word ending in -ing, which describes a noun’s purpose. Some examples include, a hunting cabin, walking stick, or rocking chair. However, not all qualifiers end in -ing. Some examples are, hat boxes, book cover, or passenger car.

I mentioned before that there are exceptions to every rule. Well, that is true in adjective order as well. These exceptions have more to do with word choice and meaning as opposed to an actual exception. This is something that comes more natural to native English speakers, but can be confusing to foreign learners. A few of the examples I used earlier fit here as well. Orange is a color and a noun so its placement in the sentence is very important. Origin has similar exceptions where the country is placed as a qualifier instead of an origin. This example is not an adjective describing a noun, it is the specific breed of that horse. So

There are no specific rules limiting the number of adjectives describing a single noun. However, when you start to run more than three together, the sentence starts to sound wrong. If a noun needs more description than two or three adjectives at the most, then continue the description with a separate sentence.

Adjective order is something we take for granted. When you start to dive in and try to learn the nuances behind it, it gets much more complicated. As a native English speaker, this topic seems simple to me, but confuses my wife, a Filipino. The rules we spoke about in this tutorial are rules that most people learn in classes. Many people use platforms such as Rosetta Stone to learn languages, but platforms like that are not enough. My hope is that if you are a platform learner, then this tutorial helped you learn more about the maze of the English language.

What do you think?

Written by Spencer Herzog


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