Writer’s love description. When describing a given object or person a writer can use as many descriptors as they would like. This is because English allows for multiple adjectives to be listed consecutively.

It was a beautiful, small, shiny, round, old coin.

It was a big, dirty, old, red, wooden barn.

In these examples there are many different types of adjectives used to describe and qualify the object in question. However, sometimes the list of adjectives can sound slightly off.

*It was a purple, British, brick, old, wall.

*It was a cotton, thin, striped, pretty shirt.

These examples aren’t technically grammatically incorrect, but they sound unnatural to the native speaker of English. This is because there is a natural flow to the ordering of adjectives that is considered acceptable to use.

There are a lot of different ways to describe this order. Several sources offer this order: Opinion, size, shape, condition, age, color, pattern/design, origin, material, purpose. Here is a helpful infographic made by www.grammar.cl


Other sites will state that you have to list your adjectives from more general descriptions to more specific. And still others point to the most intrinsic properties of the object being listed last, closest to the object.

This last suggestion is the one that I would like to draw your attention to. The reason that the classic example of “the big red barn” sounds right and “the red big barn” doesn’t isn’t because you can’t grammatically list the adjectives this way; it is because we associate barns with being red as a more natural state of being than we associate them with their size.


Linguistically, adjectives stack from the inside outward.

It was a [dirty, [old, [Italian, [silk dress]1]2]3]4.

In this example, the first adjective phrase is “silk dress”. You could take out the other adjectives and this would be the “simplest” description of the noun “dress”. Because of the order chosen, this descriptor can’t be separated from the dress to have it just be an “Italian dress” it has to be an “Italian silk dress”. But if the order was changed to: “dirty, old, silk, Italian dress” then it would be the Italian part of the dress which could not be separated from the noun as the adjectives stack.

Just like in the red barn example, most readers would be more familiar with a “silk dress” than an “Italian dress” so, if both these descriptions are listed, we tend to make the silk description be attached to the dress. I find this idea of the “intrinsic” properties of the object being listed closer to the word to be appealing. When listing your adjectives, break the object in question down to its most simple and natural state and work up from there. Which properties can’t be separated from the object without changing it into a completely different object? List those last.


Because of this, I am of the opinion that the order you choose to use for adjectives is more flexible than some would lead you to believe. “The silk, Italian dress” is not wrong. It just implies that the Italian nature of the dress is more intrinsic to the dress than its material. This can be used to stress certain properties of the noun you are describing. For example, “The British, old man” carries a slightly different connotation from “The old, British man.” It is a small difference, but it is there. One is an old man who is also British, whereas the other is a British man who also is old.

The placement of adjectives is can, and should, be very purposeful. Add the word “dirty” to the example above. “The dirty, old, British man” and “The old, dirty, British man” both, to me, imply that the man needs a shower. But, because of the commonly used colloquial phrase “dirty old man”, if you order the words as “The British, dirty, old man” the reader is likely to think that the old man is dirty minded.

My suggestion: work from the inner most adjective outwards and make sure that you are happy with each iteration of the noun that exists.

Also, as a side note, the “acceptable” and most common order of adjectives may be different in languages other than English, so a writer should take this in to account if writing for a character that is not a native English speaker as the character may be inclined to ordering their adjectives in the way which is more familiar to their native language.





http://repository.cmu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1185&context=hsshonors (very helpful graphic on page 26)

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Kim Batchelor

Kim Batchelor is a recent graduate of University of Michigan and avid consumer of media. She is the Buzz Manager at BookHive and is working on creating her own blog.


Written by Kim Batchelor

Kim Batchelor is a recent graduate of University of Michigan and avid consumer of media. She is the Buzz Manager at BookHive and is working on creating her own blog.

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