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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