Order of Adjectives
all of the       very             narrow                side    streets
both of Dr. Martin's       quite rare             worn old    Italian    art    books
   a       rather pretty small          tattered antique    Japanese cloth       doll
   an          ugly             faded    brown Spanish          tapestry
neither of my       somewhat unusual    long    thin chipped ancient blue Chinese porcelain flower    vases
   her             enormous    round          red    plastic       earrings
none of his first three    exciting                            mystery    novels
   the next          big                            technological breakthrough
   the last two utterly strange             carved          wood       statues
   those    four                         yellow       school    buses
   a          fantastic                old    French    impressionist    painting
   their          exciting                            New York social life
                  minute                            chemical changes
                                 current    German       philosophical thought
   his          complete                            family medical history
the same                            underlying                neurological conditions

1This category is sometimes called condition. Quirk has age, color, participle: "old interlocking Chinese designs," "grey crumbling Gothic church tower" (A Grammar of Contemporary English, pp. 923–25).

2An adjective derived from a noun. Examples include biological, classical, ethical, moral, philosophical, social, and technological.

3Compare "family medical history" and "geopolitical battle lines." The denominal adjective can go before the first or second noun. Its placement depends on what the adjective is modifying. In "family medical history," only the history is medical, whereas in "geopolitical battle lines," "battle lines" is a single entity.

The order in these categories never varies.

The order in these categories sometimes varies.

The order in these categories varies less, but you may see "old worn" instead of "worn old," for example.

The order listed in this chart is generally accepted by authorities, but there is some disagreement about certain details. The colors indicating more variability are the usual areas of disagreement. One problem is that certain collocations are preferred above others. For example, Quirk mentions that English speakers usually say "beautiful long hair" but "long straight hair." The best way to learn these variations is by extensive reading.

It is important to understand that we usually use only two or three adjectives together. It is extremely rare to use four or more at the same time. The examples in the table are only for the purposes of illustration.

It would be interesting to highlight combinations of two, three, and four adjectives you find in your reading. You could use a different color for each number. You will find that you will have many two–adjective combinations, fewer three–adjective combinations, and almost no four–adjective combinations.

It would also be a good idea to keep a list of phrases that contain adjectives in a different order from that of the table. Examples you keep in a notebook can be a very valuable learning tool. You might also want to search the Web with your favorite search engine for specific combinations ("worn old" vs. "old worn," for example).

You can also do a simple search of the British National Corpus to search their database using more sophisticated parameters.

Whatever you decide to do, remember that reading is the best way to develop both vocabulary and a feel for the language. The more you read, the more you will develop an ear for the language—"certain combinations just won't sound "right." As you become more advanced, extensive reading will help you more than grammatical explanations. Use grammar as a basis for investigating the language in depth by reading.

If you would like to check your understanding of adjective order, try this quiz.

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This page was last modified on 07/15/11