This week, the order of adjectives has been a hot topic in the news and social media. The kafuffle was started by Matthew Anderson of the BBC who tweeted the order in which adjectives should appear before a noun, which was retweeted a massive 47,000 times. One of my friends, who is a massive pedant, even emailed me the article.
The article said the adjectives must go in the following order: opinion, size, age, shape, colour, origin, material, purpose and then the noun. Nobody knows why this is, but when adjectives are put in the wrong order the result sounds awful.
I remember having to tackle this question when I was an English teacher. The lesson in the book I used with my students was themed around a fashion show, which described the items worn by the models with a stream of adjectives, such as a “beautiful, long, thin, orange, plastic skirt”. However, I didn’t give them the above rule to work with (I confess, I didn’t know it) and I just told them to start with the least specific adjective and to get more and more specific.
A little research on the Internet has revealed that this is a horribly complicated rule, guaranteed to terrify any foreigner trying to speak correct English. Even if you do pick up and understand the rules, putting it into practice when talking at a normal speed must take a lot of practice!
According to the British Council, it is very unusual to pile up more than three adjectives before a noun (phew!) and they usually come in this order: general opinion, specific opinion, size, shape, age, colour, nationality and material. Opinion adjectives (bad, lovely, strange and brilliant) go before specific opinion adjectives (tasty, comfortable, intelligent and friendly). They clarify that opinion adjectives go before descriptive adjectives, so we would talk about a nice black dog or some horrible uncomfortable shoes.
It is also worth mentioning that there are a few adjectives that are used only in front of a noun. These are north, northern, south, southern, east, eastern (you get the picture) as well as countless, occasional, lone, eventful, indoor and outdoor.
Although these kinds of rules tend to be drummed into foreign learners of the English language, I challenge you to find an ‘ordinary’ English person who knows why they say adjectives in this order even though they will instinctively put them into the proper order.