Dun Writin’—Now Whut? – 52 Adjectives (And the Commas That Go With Them…) (A series by Susan Uttendorfsky – Owner of Adirondack Editing)

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So, you’re merrily typing along and your character wants to put on a blue, silk, handmade scarf. Oh, wait a minute. Is that a silk, blue, handmade scarf or a handmade, silk, blue scarf? A blue, handmade, silk scarf? Oh dear!

Aha! Super Editor to the rescue!

(Imagine me swooping over your house and flying in your window, red pen in hand!)

(Ok, now imagine me 10 pounds lighter. Another ten. Ok, that’s better.)

Adjective order in English is not completely random, although what we’re going to discuss are more along the lines of guidelines rather than rules. The exception is when you’re speaking of words of general description along with words describing a physical state. These are known as coordinate adjectives and require commas. The order can be changed without altering the meaning and you are free to put the one you want to emphasize first:

  • Melissa has a round, yellow footstool.

  • Melissa has a yellow, round footstool.

You can tell when you have coordinate adjectives because you can use the word “and” between them (instead of the comma) and they make sense with the order reversed.

Supposedly, native English speakers have an intuitive sense about how adjectives should be ordered and automatically handle them correctly, but some writers seem to lack the gene that turned on that “intuitive” sense and struggle with it. 🙂 You may see some slight variations in this “intuitive” list, but not many. And generally, this order has remained consistent over a long period of time within the English language.

Adjectives that add more and more information about a noun are known as cumulative adjectives—the adjectives piggyback on each other and build up a mind picture of the object. The order cannot be changed:

  • Four large purple shapes slithered toward us.

  • Large purple four shapes slithered toward us.

  • Purple four large shapes slithered toward us.

You can see that only the first one makes any sense. The rule is that a stack of cumulative adjectives generally occurs in the following order: number (five, one), opinion/judgement/attitude (useful, lovely, ugly), size (big, small), age (young, old), shape (square, squiggly), color (cobalt, yellow), origin (Canadian, solar), material (granite, wool), and purpose (shopping, running).

You’ll notice that there are no commas in the list of cumulative adjectives. This remains true no matter how long the list of adjectives is, unless you wish to add some emphasis between two coordinate adjectives WITHIN the list of cumulative adjectives:

  • An ugly large heavy dirty old blue striped British nylon sleeping bag.

  • Pamela tripped over the tiny, new European plastic toy Edvard had left on the floor. (Comma added for emphasis—“tiny and new” and “new and tiny” mean the same thing.)

  • When you’re looking at six ugly huge black Martian space monsters, run away quickly!

Granted, these examples are just for fun. Very few writers would create a sentence that used so many adjectives!

We’re Dun for today, so keep on Writin’!

Susan

Susan Uttendorfsky

Owner, Adirondack Editing

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43 thoughts on “Dun Writin’—Now Whut? – 52 Adjectives (And the Commas That Go With Them…) (A series by Susan Uttendorfsky – Owner of Adirondack Editing)

    • Hi Sally,

      I always keep a list of my sources. 🙂

      This site (http://english.stackexchange.com/questions/1155/what-is-the-rule-for-adjective-order) quotes Michael Swan (Practical English Usage, Oxford University Press, 1997):

      “Unfortunately, the rules for adjective order are very complicated, and different grammars disagree about the details” p. 8

      He does, however, go on to list some of the most important rules:

      Adjectives of colour, origin, material and purpose usually go in that order.
      Colour-origin-material-purpose-noun
      red Spanish leather riding boots
      A brown German beer mug
      A Venetian glass flower vase

      Other adjectives usually go before words of colour, origin, material and purpose. It is impossible to give exact rules, but adjectives of size, length and height often come first.
      The round glass table (NOT the glass round table)
      A big, modern brick house (NOT a modern, big brick house)
      Long, flexible steel poles
      A tall, ancient oak-tree

      Adjectives which express judgements or attitudes usually come before all others. Examples are lovely, definite, pure, absolute, extreme, perfect, wonderful, silly.
      A lovely, long, cool drink
      Who’s that silly fat man over there?

      (snip)

      Thus, a complete list could be:

      (article) + number + judgement/attitude + size, length, height + age + colour + origin + material + purpose + noun

      a lovely long black leather coat
      a valuable Dutch Impressionist painting
      a rustic old stone holiday cottage

      And linked back to the British Council, the UK’s international organisation for cultural relations and educational opportunities, at http://learnenglish.britishcouncil.org/en/english-grammar/adjectives/order-adjectives.

      In addition, the Chicago Manual of Style (online) says:

      5.90 Coordinate adjectives

      A coordinate adjective is one that appears in a sequence with one or more related adjectives to modify the same noun. Coordinate adjectives should be separated by commas or by and {skilled, experienced chess player} {nurturing and loving parent}. But if one adjective modifies the noun and another adjective modifies the idea expressed by the combination of the first adjective and the noun, the adjectives are not considered coordinate and should not be separated by a comma [SU: This is what I’ve referenced as a cumulative adjective]. For example, a lethargic soccer player describes a soccer player who is lethargic. Likewise, phrases such as red brick house and wrinkled canvas jacket are unpunctuated because the adjectives are not coordinate: they have no logical connection in sense (a red house could be made of many different materials; so could a wrinkled jacket). The most useful test is this: if and would fit between the two adjectives, a comma is necessary.

      I hope this helps! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  1. The order for adjectives just seems natural. If I just go with what comes naturally, I’ll be fine, but the minute I start analyzing the order I put them in, I’ll be in trouble double guessing myself.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I hated the practice of sentence diagrams when I was in elementary school. The nuns insisted on them, and I’m so grateful now. Even among our most educated population, good grammar is a lost art. The plus side of that is that I’ve had many jobs writing/editing based on correcting the work of other folks who are highly skilled, but have difficulty in expressing their message. ☺

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I’ve often wondered why I just seem to know the right order for adjectives – must be another thing rooted in learning English early as your first language. Commas with a list of adjectives have ALWAYS bothered me!

    Liked by 2 people

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