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Keeping Adjectives in Line

April 8, 2014 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified June 10, 2014

Native speakers of a language typically understand many grammar rules without having to study those rules. Yet some rules can be a problem for any of us, especially if we don’t know that we actually should be following a rule.

Today I want to look at what is called the royal order of adjectives, a fancy way of saying that multiple adjectives used together to modify the same noun have a particular order, at least in English. Most writers and editors have no problem with putting adjectives in the proper order, but every once in a while you may find yourself staring at a string of adjectives, wondering if something is wrong. Are they in the right order? And where do the commas go? Does a particular grouping of adjectives even get commas?

Let’s look at the rules for adjectives, see how adjectives are ordered in a list, and learn where to include commas and whether or not commas are even necessary.

____________________________

Let’s start with an example.

The big green tree blocked his view.

We know that this shouldn’t be

The green big tree blocked his view. X

But why not? Why can’t we put adjectives in any order? We could say the green elm tree blocked his view, so why can’t we write the green big tree?

We can’t because there are rules, rules established from use and likely as a way of making communication easier. Those we communicate with, through either the spoken or the written word, will more easily understand when they don’t have to figure out which words go with which others, which words modify which others. If they know and use the same rules we use, communication is clearer.

The Royal Order of Adjectives

Adjectives fall into different categories, and it is those categories that have been given a particular order. So once you know the categories, it’s much  easier to decide on word order.

The nine categories—in order from those farthest from the noun when multiple adjectives are used to those closest to the noun—with examples—

Determiner—articles (a, an, the), possessives (your, his, her, my, their, our), number (ten, several, some), demonstratives (this, that, those, these)

Observation or Opinion—cold, ugly, tasty, heroic, retired, carefree, enthusiastic, soft, opinionated, priceless

Size—huge, minuscule, petite

Shape—square, oblong, circular

Age—ancient, old, young

Color—green, gray, yellow

Origin—British, Albanian, Hawaiian

Material—wooden, velvet, plastic, aluminum

Qualifier—typically a noun used as an adjective to identify the type of the noun—hound dog, evening gown, bumper crop—or an adjective ending in -ing that describes a noun’s purpose—adding machine, walking stick, marching orders

Notes: 1. Size and shape are sometimes combined into one category.

2. Many, many adjectives are observation/opinion adjectives.

3. Qualifiers bump up next to the noun with nothing between them. The paired words are often open compounds.

Examples of nouns paired with multiple adjectives*

a long blue velvet drape

the gnarled and hideous plastic tubing

a loose-fitting blue and green Hawaiian shirt

an unkempt, unconscious Russian tourist

some hard, tasteless, and stinky yellow candies

some hard, tasteless yellow candies

some hard yellow candies

Examples of incorrect adjective order—

a burlap ugly purse X

correct—an ugly burlap purse

two Spanish purple plums X

correct—two purple Spanish plums

that plastic key small ring X

correct—that small plastic key ring

Exceptions

There are exceptions to every rule. For the rule about adjective order, one exception is less exception than word choice and meaning.

In our example about plums, the word order makes sense—two, purple, and Spanish each independently modify plums. But if purple plum was a type of plum (as are cherry plum and sloe plum), with purple as the qualifier, then two Spanish purple plums would be correct.

Note:  In this example, Spanish is simply an adjective signifying where the plum came from (an adjective of origin). It is not a qualifier naming the type of plum. There are, however, Chinese, Mexican, American, and Italian plums.

In the example of the ugly burlap purse, the order again makes sense because we wouldn’t say a burlap ugly purse. Yet we might easily say a big old ugly purse. Why is that adjective order allowed?

Whether this exception comes from the use of big old ugly as a common unit rather than three separate adjectives or because ugly is being used as a type of purse, I can’t tell you. Yet I can remind you that there are exceptions to be aware of.

Also, be mindful of that final modifier before the noun. Is it a qualifier or an observation/opinion adjective? You can use a comma to identify which you intend it to be. An example may be helpful.

One of the following sentences does not say the same thing as the others.

The annual and week-long meeting was in September.

The annual, week-long meeting was in September.

The week-long and annual meeting was in September.

The week-long, annual meeting was in September.

The week-long annual meeting was in September.

In the first four sentences, the meeting is both annual and runs for a week. In the fifth sentence, the annual meeting, an entity in itself, runs for a week.

Read on for rules on the use of commas with multiple adjectives.

Commas and Adjectives

Both writers and editors need to know when to use commas with multiple adjectives. If you know the royal order of adjectives, knowing when to use commas between adjectives becomes much easier.

~  Use commas between adjectives from the same category (coordinate adjectives)

~  Do not use commas between adjectives from different categories (cumulative adjectives)

~  Do not use a comma between the final adjective and the noun it modifies

~  Do not use a comma  after a determiner

Those four rules should see you through most deliberations about commas, but there are tricks you can use to determine comma use with multiple adjectives.

~  If and can be inserted between the adjectives and the meaning of the sentence (or phrase) is the same with and without the and (and it still makes sense)

AND

if you can reverse the order of the adjectives and the meaning is still clear,

then you would use a comma between the adjectives.

Note: Do not use both and and a comma between two coordinate adjectives; use one or the other. With three or more coordinate adjectives, use commas or use and multiple times.

These examples are all correct—

The scary and hungry bears charged the tent.

The threatening, scary bears charged the tent.

The scary, threatening, and hungry bears charged the tent.

The scary, threatening, hungry bears charged the tent.

The scary and threatening and hungry bears charged the tent.

These examples are incorrect—

The scary, and hungry bears charged the tent. X

The scary hungry bears charged the tent. X

Adjectives that require commas between them are called coordinate adjectives. They are paired adjectives that carry the same weight in terms of the way they modify the noun. In reference to the categories we’ve listed here, coordinate adjectives come from the same category.

Two coordinate adjectives can be written multiple ways—with either of the adjectives first and separated by a comma, or with either adjective first and joined by and.

Eleanor was impressed by the extravagant and costly party.

Eleanor was impressed by the costly and extravagant party.

Eleanor was impressed by the extravagant, costly party.

Eleanor was impressed by the costly, extravagant party.

Note: While coordinate adjectives can come from most of the categories, you’ll typically find them from the observation/opinion category.

Note: While these examples show only two coordinate adjectives, you can use more, of course.

Eleanor was impressed by the extravagant, loud, and costly party.

____________________________

There are no rules about the number of adjectives you can pair with a noun, but most of the time we’ll find three to be a typical maximum. (Three of any one item or element creates a strong statement and/or a striking rhythm.) However, sometimes a sentence or phrase requires more than three, and there’s nothing wrong with using a string of adjectives that describe exactly what needs describing.

The following are examples of sentences with longer lists of multiple adjectives, one with cumulative adjectives and one with coordinate adjectives.

Kate stood dazed before the stunning antique ivory empire wedding dress.

Sylvester shook his fist at the no-good, lazy, greedy, law-breaking, wife-stealing, and young, young, absurdly young son of a goat who’d lured his wife away with promises of forever love.

While a string of adjectives may be just perfect for one sentence, keep in mind that a lot of detail jumbled together means that some of those details will not be noted and those that are noted might be quickly forgotten. Yet grouping or stringing adjectives together is a great way to show how a character thinks or speaks, and is a marvelous way to hide an important detail in plain sight.

So a character might link adjectives together as a personality quirk. If he does, show us those linked adjectives; don’t shy away from using any trick for conveying your character’s personality.

And if you need to relay information while at the same time you don’t want the reader to catch on too quickly, hide that information within a string of other information. It’s there, so you’re playing fair with the reader, but you’re not pointing arrows at the detail.

Another Exception

As always, you can ignore rules if a character would. So characters may mangle the order of adjectives because that’s how they speak. Yet keep in mind that readers will notice and they may have to pause in their reading to make sense of an unusual word order. That’s great if your intention is to show a character’s unusual phrasings. But you usually won’t want to slow the reader down too much or too often, and you don’t usually want to confuse them. Use odd phrasings sparingly; this is an instance when a little definitely goes a long way.

____________________________

Follow the royal order of adjectives when a noun needs multiple modifiers. And use commas when the rules call for them.

As you write and edit, convey exactly what you mean to with your word choices, word order, and punctuation. Use all three to reveal your characters’ quirks and to establish a story’s style and rhythm.

Help readers understand right away through correct word order and punctuation.

*******

* I didn’t explain the use or non-use of commas in one earlier section; I thought you might want to test yourself on the reasons for using or not using commas in those examples. Explanations are included here.

a long blue velvet drape

cumulative (or noncoordinate) adjectives from three different categories require no commas

the gnarled and hideous plastic tubing

coordinate adjectives joined by and—a comma rather than and between gnarled and hideous would also be correct

a loose-fitting blue and green Hawaiian shirt

cumulative adjectives from three different categories require no commas, and the and is included between the coordinate adjectives (blue and green)

an unkempt, unconscious Russian tourist

a comma between the coordinate adjectives (unkempt and unconscious) but no comma between cumulative adjectives unconscious and Russian

some hard, tasteless, and stinky yellow candies

commas between three coordinate adjectives but not between the two cumulative adjectives (stinky and yellow)

some hard, tasteless yellow candies

commas between two coordinate adjectives but not between the two cumulative adjectives

some hard yellow candies

 no commas between cumulative adjectives

***

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27 Responses to “Keeping Adjectives in Line”

  1. Haydee says:

    Great post!:

    How about something like: two overgrown pea-brained gorillas? Do I need a comma after overgrown?

  2. Linda says:

    LOVE, LOVE, LOVE this kind of information.

  3. Barb says:

    I’ve been looking for this info for about two years. All I could find is the: “Change the order”, or “stick ‘and’ between the adjectives” tests. But no explanation of WHY. Thank you so so much. It feels mentally satisfying to understand the “why” rather than memorize a rule. You’re a blessing. Thanks.

  4. Lamb says:

    Good topic—I think I’ll keep coming back to this post because this is an area I haven’t really paid any attention to and when I read some of the examples I found myself getting muddled :)

    One more thing—I’m not sure how to go about getting a password to read your next post. Can anyone access it?

    • Lamb, let me know if I can help unmuddle you. I don’t want this to be confusing.

      And no, not everyone can access the last post. It’s a Word doc for a webinar I did. I probably should have just linked it in the sidebar, but I was in a hurry the day I put it up.

  5. Jared says:

    This informative sizable rectangular new black and white Internet electronic adjectives article is wonderful.

    I’ll show myself out…

  6. Idalia says:

    I want to know how to use two nouns (for example ears and eyes) with a same adjective (sharp or strong). What is the correct form?
    Thank you

    • Idalia, you’ve got a couple of options here.

      For the adjective to apply to both nouns, you can put the adjective first, before the nouns. Do not include other adjectives (not even articles) with the second noun—

      The sharp knives and swords were secured in their cases; the dull ones were set aside for sharpening.

      The dirty plates and cups were thrown into the trash.

      The construction is a bit different, the sentences of a different type, but you can also include the adjective after the nouns (and after the verb)—

      The boys and girls were talented.

      The horns and alarms sounded obnoxious.

      If you’re not sure you’ve made the meaning clear, that both nouns are modified by the single adjective, or you want to emphasize the adjective, you can make your meaning clear by your word choice. You can repeat the adjective, but as we saw in the first examples, you don’t have to repeat. And you wouldn’t want to repeat often, just occasionally for emphasis or clarity.

      Both the house and his new car were expensive.

      The sky was a deep blue, as were her eyes.

      Her cold hands and cold glare stopped him from moving any closer.

      —————-

      For those who may be wondering how to avoid using a single adjective for multiple nouns, you also have options. Add an article (the, an, a) to the second noun, add a different adjective for the second noun, or reverse the order of the nouns. Only the knives are sharp in these sentences—

      The sharp knives and the swords were locked away.

      The sharp knives and the gleaming swords were locked away.

      The swords and the sharp knives were locked away.

      —————

      Let me know if that didn’t answer your question.

  7. Nawee says:

    Hello,

    I was looking for information on the order of adjectives when I came across your blog. Thank you for putting it up.

    However, I have one point that I have been trying to find a satisfactory explanation. Reference books/websites (also your blog) seem to talk about the Royal Order of opinion > size. But there are quite a few cases in which this order is reversed, especially with the adjective “big”.

    1) a big beautiful house (more common according to nGram viewer)
    2) a beautiful big house (following the Royal Order)

    Even one of your examples seems to violate the order.

    3) some hard, tasteless yellow candies

    Isn’t “tasteless” more of an opinion than “hard”, which seems to describe a physical property?

    Can you change the order by using the comma?

    I would be grateful for your comment.

    Best regards,

    Nawee

    • Nawee, there are always exceptions, and you have discovered one of them. In the section on exceptions, I included big old ugly purse. We have come to accept some pairings or groupings of adjectives in a certain order, probably because we use them so often that way as a figure of speech. So yes, exceptions are acceptable for common phrases.

      As for hard and tasteless, both are opinion or observation adjectives. That means either can go first, and they need to be separated by a comma or the word and. They are from the same category, even though they are different kinds of words. It’s likely that one would sound better coming before the other in different kinds of sentences.

      Does that help? If not, let me know.

  8. I want to end a sentence with: “… prevalent in the transient and oppressively life-sustaining indiscernible troposphere.”

    Would this be wrong, grammatically?

    Would it be safer to simply write: “… prevalent in the transient, indiscernible, and oppressively life-sustaining troposphere.” instead?

    Or…

    “… prevalent in the transient, and oppressively life-sustaining, indiscernible troposphere.”

    When constructing a sentence with a string of adjectives… I’m wondering about the rule (when using a slew of descriptive tidbits) when to it’s wrong/correct to use an ADJECTIVE followed by a comma followed by AND + ADJ followed by comma again or no comma?

    In one example you wrote:

    “Sylvester shook his fist at the no-good, lazy, greedy, law-breaking, wife-stealing, and young, young, absurdly young son of a goat who’d lured his wife away with promises of forever love.”

    In this example, was it correct to use the “wife-stealing, and young, young” b/c the description shifted slightly? Or is it up to artistic discretion / poetic license… with not concrete rules governing the behavior of using a comma plus “and” followed by another adj before the noun is introduced?

  9. I want to end a sentence with: “… prevalent in the transient and oppressively life-sustaining indiscernible troposphere.”

    Would this be wrong, grammatically?

    Would it be safer to simply write: “… prevalent in the transient, indiscernible, and oppressively life-sustaining troposphere.” instead?

    Or…

    “… prevalent in the transient, and oppressively life-sustaining, indiscernible troposphere.”

    OR

    “… prevalent in the transient, oppressively life-sustaining, indiscernible troposphere.”

    When constructing a sentence with a string of adjectives… I’m wondering about the rule (when using a slew of descriptive tidbits) when it’s wrong/correct to use an ADJECTIVE – followed by a comma – followed by AND + ADJ – followed by comma again (or no comma)?

    In one example you wrote:

    “Sylvester shook his fist at the no-good, lazy, greedy, law-breaking, wife-stealing, and young, young, absurdly young son of a goat who’d lured his wife away with promises of forever love.”

    In this example, was it correct to use the “wife-stealing, and young, young” b/c the description shifted slightly? Or is it up to artistic discretion / poetic license… with no concrete rules governing the behavior of using a comma plus “and” followed by another adj before the noun is introduced?

    • Matthew, there are a couple of issues here.

      Yes, I used a style choice to emphasize that final adjective young. It was going to be the last adjective in the string, but to emphasize the man’s youth (and Sylvester’s attitude about that youth) and to balance the earlier string of adjectives, I repeated young and added the adverb. I treated young, young, absurdly young as a unit—like an adjective with many parts—and then I gave it its own internal punctuation because it needed the commas. I added the and before it for the sound/feel/rhythm and because you can add the word and before the final adjective in a string of them. (Remember, I was treating young, young, absurdly young as a single adjective.)

      We’ll come back to this format—this adj followed by a comma followed by AND + adj followed by comma—after we look at a couple of other issues.

      Let’s look at your modifiers. Your decision of what to write and how to punctuate will be based on what you truly want to say.

      If transient, life-sustaining, and indiscernible are of equal weight and each modifies troposphere, then you could put them in any order. If, however, indiscernible troposphere is an entity in itself—if indiscernible is a qualifier—then indiscernible needs to stay next to troposphere and the other modifiers need to modify that whole indiscernible troposphere.

      Let’s look at your examples.

      “… prevalent in the transient and oppressively life-sustaining indiscernible troposphere.”

      By using this particular construction, you’ve told us that indiscernible troposphere is a unit, like bumper crop or evening news. But I’m guessing that isn’t really the case, that indiscernible should be treated like an adjective of observation or opinion. If, however, I’m mistaken, then this construction and punctuation are correct.

      If indiscernible is an observation/opinion adjective, then these would be correct—

      “… prevalent in the transient and oppressively life-sustaining and indiscernible troposphere.”

      “… prevalent in the transient, oppressively life-sustaining, indiscernible troposphere.”

      “… prevalent in the transient, oppressively life-sustaining, and indiscernible troposphere.”

      For emphasis and a pleasing rhythm, you might want to put the adjective paired with the adverb last, as you did in one of your examples—

      “… prevalent in the transient, indiscernible, and oppressively life-sustaining troposphere.”

      ———————–

      In the next example, and oppressively life-sustaining is being treated as a nonessential element, like an aside. Think comment or other parenthetical. You could just as easily set the words apart from the sentence with dashes.

      This pattern of adj–comma–and–adj–comma–adj is a valid option because of its purpose and result. This pattern isn’t used in your sentence for the same reason I used it in my sentence, to emphasize that final multiword adjective, but both are equally valid sentence constructions.

      “… prevalent in the transient, and oppressively life-sustaining, indiscernible troposphere.”

      Look at the following sentences to see how this works.

      In the bewitching, star-filled night.

      In the bewitching, and very bright, star-filled night.

      Can you hear the narrator’s commentary in that phrase? It’s as if the narrator (speaker or viewpoint character) is delivering the words and very bright under her breath or from the side of her mouth.

      We could also write either of the following, but the effect is different with the inclusion of the and between bewitching and very.

      In the bewitching, very bright, star-filled night.

      In the bewitching, very bright, and star-filled night.

      Was this what you were getting at, this particular construction? It definitely can work. You wouldn’t stick a random and into the middle of a string of adjectives, but you can use it to create particular effects.

      Let me know if this wasn’t what you were getting at.

      • Matthew says:

        THANK YOU for the prompt and thorough response. It was extremely informative and helpful! It all boils down to style choice and preference…

        You’re correct. My intention was to group ‘indiscernible troposphere’ as an entity. I was worried that intention would be lost if it was grouped in a string with other modifying ADJs. I wanted to use indiscernible as a qualifier… which makes it correct to keep it where it is.

        ALSO, I understand now that using the ADJ, AND ADJ, ADJ is a narrative ploy (in a sense), employed to emphasize, amplify, or advance something the writer wants to convey… but not used grammatically in a descriptive sense to properly modify a noun, or entity.

        In this example, the sentence is part of a prose work… using a stream of consciousness style… I decided to go with:

        “A formulaic utterance emerged from a low and expansive latent perspicacity, unbeknownst to me, and through the respiratory current of a carbon dioxide-rich prevailing wind this unendurable remark was shrewdly conveyed to that malleable substance prevalent in the transient, oppressively life-sustaining, indiscernible troposphere.”

        I was looking to avoid a third “and” usage in the above sentence, especially if it wasn’t necessary. I know every word should “tell” and while less is always welcome it’s not always a dictum…

        Anyway, I’m thinking that the final “adj, and adj noun” formula is used more for coord adj that modify equally. Going without that final “and” infers that the final ADJ qualifies the noun?

        One more thing (if I may be so bold), as you mentioned above, since ‘latent perspicacity’ is an entity, along with ‘prevailing wind’, then this sentence would be correct? I wouldn’t need a comma after both “expansive” and carbon dioxide-rich?

        • Matt, you said you were going with—

          “A formulaic utterance emerged from a low and expansive latent perspicacity, unbeknownst to me, and through the respiratory current of a carbon dioxide-rich prevailing wind this unendurable remark was shrewdly conveyed to that malleable substance prevalent in the transient, oppressively life-sustaining, indiscernible troposphere.”

          But that puts a comma between life-sustaining and indiscernible—I thought you weren’t going to do that, that indiscernible was going to be used as a qualifier. I thought what you wanted was this—

          . . . prevalent in the transient and oppressively life-sustaining indiscernible troposphere

          OR

          . . . prevalent in the transient, oppressively life-sustaining indiscernible troposphere.

          I’m just checking . . .

          Also, I rather like the feel/sound of and between transient and oppressively. (My two cents, but with all the “big” words, a simple and will help readers catch their breaths.)

          ————–
          As for this—

          Anyway, I’m thinking that the final “adj, and adj noun” formula is used more for coord adj that modify equally. Going without that final “and” infers that the final ADJ qualifies the noun?

          No, going without the final and doesn’t mean that the final adjective qualifies the noun. It could mean that, but not if you include the comma before the final adjective. If you want the last adjective to be a qualifier, do not put a comma or the and before it. Adding the comma or and or both would change the meaning.

          Again, from what you’re saying, this is the setup you want—

          . . . prevalent in the transient, oppressively life-sustaining indiscernible troposphere.

          Something akin to—

          She wore the ghastly, terribly old-fashioned evening gown.

          And yet . . .

          Indiscernible doesn’t really fit the stipulations for a qualifier. It’s actually an observation adjective. Or is there a common item known as an indiscernible troposphere?

          Latent seems to be the same kind of adjective, simply an observation adjective. Prevailing, however, is a qualifier because there are such things as prevailing winds—they are an existing unit.

          I’ll look at this again in the morning, but it looks as if you’re going to need more commas and/or another and.

      • Matt says:

        When you spoke of the possibility setting it aside… This would be correct too:

        “A formulaic utterance emerged from a low and expansive latent perspicacity, unbeknownst to me, and through the respiratory current of a carbon dioxide-rich prevailing wind this unendurable remark was shrewdly conveyed to that malleable substance prevalent in the transient, indiscernible — and oppressively life-sustaining — troposphere.”

      • matt says:

        I apologize… I promise this is my final question on this matter… Thank you again for your time and consideration on this matter.

        Would this version work too?

        “A formulaic utterance emerged from a low and expansive latent perspicacity, unbeknownst to me, and shrewdly, through the respiratory current of a carbon dioxide-rich prevailing wind, this unendurable remark was conveyed to that malleable substance prevalent in the transient, indiscernible – and oppressively life-sustaining – troposphere.”

        * Would the placement of the adverb “shrewdly” alter the statement… (with regards to the rate of conveyance of the remark)? OR do both version express the same expediency?

  10. Kev says:

    Hi Beth!
    I came across something recently that has sparked a professional disagreement with a colleague and I am hoping you can help settle things.

    My colleague and I disagree over how the following statement reads:

    “You must wear a black belt, socks, and black slip-resistant shoes.”

    He insists that the sentence is stating that all items in the list are required to be black because the first use of the adjective implies the modification of each noun in the list. (ie. You must wear a black belt, black socks, and black slip-resistant shoes.)

    However, I believe that the second use of the same adjective to modify the third noun renders the second noun unmodified by the first use of the adjective.

    My question is this: Is there a rule regarding how multiple adjectives are used to describe multiple nouns in a list? When does the use of one adjective modify multiple nouns compared to using the same adjective to modify multiple nouns in the same sentence?

    In short, is the statement saying that black socks are required? Or just socks?
    I would like to point to a grammar rule or style preference, but I cannot seem to find one.

    Any insight you could give would be greatly appreciated!

    Thanks!
    Kev

    • Kev, what a great issue to ponder. But I’m guessing you want more than some pondering.

      The problem here is that there’s more than the issue of matching adjectives to nouns to deal with. The actual problem is the faulty parallelism.

      For the adjective/noun issue first (I’m saying what you already know for others who will read this)—

      You both obviously understand how putting a single adjective in front of a list of nouns typically affects the nouns—it modifies each. You also understand that using a different adjective for one of the nouns breaks that pattern. But this sentence seemingly tries to do both at the same time. And that sets up a problem for parallelism and for the reader.

      Because of the structure, the two of you can’t decide what the sentence actually says; readers will have the exact same problem. This is one of those times when you can’t win without rewriting. There’s no rule for this particular situation. Not exactly.

      You’re right that the modifiers for the third noun imply that black doesn’t go with every noun. But you can’t expect readers to back-read. They understand the rule that an adjective before a list belongs to all nouns in a list. As soon as they see that first comma and the second noun (unmodified), they’re primed for every item to be black. But the modifier for the third noun will have them doing a double take. Still, they know what the beginning of the sentence said—black belt and black socks. They’ve already established that in their minds. But now the end of the sentence implies something different. The sentence doesn’t make sense because it has competing rules.

      The fact that the sentence repeats black is a problem. But it would be a problem no matter what that modifier was.

      There is absolutely no way for readers to know the color of the socks. There is no way for them to know if it’s socks alone that are required or if the requirement is for black socks. Not with this sentence. It’s not that this sentence can mean either what you read into it or what your colleague reads into it. It’s that the meaning can’t be determined with the sentence written as it is.

      Regarding the parallelism issue—

      The structure for the nouns in the list should match. So any of these would work:

      If everything is black—

      black belt, socks, and shoes

      black belt, black dress socks, and black slip-resistant shoes

      black belt and socks, and black slip-resistant shoes

      If the socks aren’t black—

      dress socks, black belt, and black slip-resistant shoes

      black belt, socks of any style or color, and black slip-resistant shoes

      ————————

      There’s a lot more to this issue, so I’m going to work on an article to address the details. (I’ll link here when I post it.) But I hope this helps. I don’t often suggest rewriting without first getting at the core issue of a question, but I hope I gave you enough to show you why the sentence doesn’t work. The faulty parallelism—the structure of the sentence itself—has left those poor socks dangling out there without an adjective.

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  1. […] make sense and if the sentence makes sense with an and between the adjectives—see the article Keeping Adjectives in Line for […]

  2. […] their placement. This order is known as the ‘Royal Order of Adjectives’, according to The Editor’s Blog, and is as […]