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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Tags: , , ,     Posted in: Grammar & Punctuation, Writing Tips

16 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.

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