Updated on December 3, 2015
The gorgeous little green-eyed pet cat – a guide to adjective order
Why isn’t this a pet green-eyed little gorgeous cat? Because there’s such a thing as adjective order – and it goes like this
Photograph by Monica Ricci
Have you ever wondered why we say “the big red bus” and not the “red big bus”? When two or more adjectives premodify a noun, we automatically order them in a way that sounds natural. For a native speaker, it’s obvious that the cat above should be described as a “gorgeous little green-eyed pet cat” rather than a “pet green-eyed little gorgeous” one – but why does the first example sound “right”?
Most people don’t realise it, but adjectives are positioned in a certain order depending on the quality they describe. This is not a grammatical rule so much as a convention, so there’s no right or wrong. But generally they’re placed like this:
A specific number (one hundred) or indefinite amount (many)
You can take this one step further and make a distinction between general opinions (lovely, nice) and specific opinions (comfortable, delicious), with general opinions coming first.
50-year-old or old/new/ancient/modern, etc
What it’s made from.
This often refers to nationality.
What it does or what it’s for (pruning knife, riding school, religious icon).
It’s not always easy to remember this list, and for a sentence containing many adjectives – “an amazing 6ft brand new low-backed purple velvet four-person sofa” – the most natural-sounding order is not always obvious (although you wouldn’t dream of cramming so many adjectives into one sentence, would you?). But one good tip to remember is that subjective judgments (cosy, beautiful) come first whereas inherent characteristics (cotton, German) stay closest to the noun.
What about the commas?
You might be wondering why there aren’t any commas between any of the adjectives in the examples above. Let’s put some in: “gorgeous, little, green-eyed, pet, cat”. They get in the way, don’t they? And they certainly don’t make the sentence easier to understand. It’s because the list of adjectives here is cumulative – the words all refer to a different quality and build upon one another to give a full description of the cat – they work in combination. If the words all described a similar property, such as the cat’s behaviour, then commas would be needed: a naughty, cheeky, mischievous cat. If you’re not sure, ask yourself if you can put the word and in between each adjective without it sounding weird. If you can then you need commas: “The cat was naughty and cheeky and mischievous” but not “The cat was gorgeous and little and green-eyed and pet”.
Did you know about adjective order? The cat’s out of the bag now…