One Strange “Rule” about Adjectives We Don’t Know

Photo by JR Korpa on Unsplash

Why Do Adjectives Have to be Ordered in a Certain Way Before the Head Noun?

See also the relevant video on YouTube:

Basic principles:

  • You have to know which word is the head noun first, and the determiner that fences the adjectives in;
  • The adjective order is not arbitrary but follows a systematic pattern across most examples;
  • The closer the adjective is to the head noun, the more effectively it is for classifying the thing/person denoted by the noun.

The Sequence

This kind of adjective sequencing pattern for describing nouns may be natural for experienced English speakers, who corrected their “mistakes” by trying. It is natural to native speakers but not all of them would be aware of it. So when many of us want to figure out why the adjectives are ordered in such a pattern, we don’t get a satisfactory answer until our teachers or linguists jump in. The pattern, as they explain, would be something like: (Note: the bolded words are adjectives, and the symbol ^ stands for “is followed by”)

Determiner ^ opinion ^ size ^ age ^ shape ^ colour ^ origin ^ (non-)material ^ purpose ^ Head noun

(For some of you who are learning parts of a noun phrase, you can refer to:

Here are some brief explanations about the labels for the adjectives:

OpinionWhat the speaker thinks about the object/person (noun)The annoying noise, the wonderful experience
SizeSelf-explanatoryThe huge wave, the microscopic organism
AgeSelf-explanatoryThe old man, the 91-year-old lady, the young boy
ShapeSelf-explanatoryA square handkerchief, a circular motion
ColourSelf-explanatoryBlue, red, green, yellowish, etc.
OriginWhere the object/person is fromFrench wine, a British band
(Non-)materialThe adjective denotes the material that composes the thing (noun); in contrast, some adjectives put before the head noun are not the material forming the thing.Material: a plastic box (the box is made of plastic) Non-material: a flower vase (the vase is not made of flower)
PurposeWhat the functions/purposes of the thing/personA resizing tool (a tool for resizing), a drinking fountain (a fountain for drinking water)

A full-fledged example could be A beautiful little old cyclindrical red French porcelain storage box. Putting all components separately in a table, we can see the order of these adjectives more clearly:

detopinionsizeageshapecolourorigin(Non-) materialpurposenoun

Of course, we won’t always have this kind of noun phrase with a long string of adjectives before the head noun, especially in academic writing, where descriptions of things might not be this overly specific. But it doesn’t harm to see how these adjectives are related, so that when we are describing objects or people using different adjective combinations, we can arrive at a more accurate sequence. For example, it sounds more natural to say blue suede shoes (colour ^ material) than suede blue shoes; or cheeky little school boy (opinion ^ size/age ^ *non-material ^ noun) is less awkward then school little cheeky boy.

(More on next page)

One comment

  1. […] No joke: one day after class, a student approached me and asked: what is a noun phrase? In secondary school, my teacher only taught us about single-word nouns. This was jaw-dropping — so no one told them the Subject in a sentence can be longer than one word?! At least before nouns you can add a lot of other grammatical components, especially adjectives. […]


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