Word Matters Podcast

How to Order Adjectives

Word Matters, Episode 77

In English, there's a certain way adjectives tend to fall in line. It's natural to hear something like "brown leather wallet," but "leather brown wallet" would sound slightly off. So... why? We'll look into it.

Download the episode here.


Emily Brewster: Coming up on Word matters, a supposedly inviolable law of the English language. I'm Emily Brewster and Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media. On each episode, Merriam-Webster editors, Ammon Shea, Peter Sokolowski, and I explore some aspect of the English language from the dictionary's vantage point.

It's been reported that native English speakers naturally order their adjectives in a very particular way, and that deviation from this order makes for strange sounding English. Is it true? I'll take a look.

In his book The Elements of Eloquence: How to Turn the Perfect English Phrase, Mark Forsyth writes that adjectives in English have to be in a particular order. He writes actually, "they absolutely have to be in this order: opinion, size, age, shape, color, origin, material, purpose, and then the noun." He says, "So you can have a lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife, but if you mess with that order in the slightest, you'll sound like a maniac." This ordering is so particular. You know, the idea is that native English speaker don't have to think about this at all. This is one of those rules of English that is an absolute rule but that we all just absorb by virtue of being steeped in the language from infancy, that native English speakers just automatically understand that this is how our adjectives have to be ordered. I think it's a very interesting rule, but I don't know that I completely buy that it is as absolute as Mr. Forsyth suggests.

Ammon Shea: You know, whenever hear the word absolute in relation to this language. My hackles go up a little bit when I hear like absolute adjectives. I just become obstreperous and contradictory. But I was so confused by the order that you gave that my defenses are up already. Can you say what the order of operations is again?

Emily Brewster: The order of operations, yes. This is Mark Forsyth's order. There is also another order that is called the royal order of adjectives that is basically the same. Forsyth's is: opinion size, age, shape, color, origin, material, purpose, and then noun. The royal order of adjectives says that a determiner comes first, and determiners are articles, possessives, demonstratives like the, your, our, these, and then quantity, opinion, size, age, shape, color, origin/material, and or a qualifier, like denim skirt, or hound dog.

Ammon Shea: Before we go any further, I feel compelled to say that somebody out there should really take a Forsyth character, and whoever came up with the royal order of adjectives, and write some kind of novel in which these two meet and have like a fight to the over the adjective order. That's got to be the basis for some kind of great historical, though Forsyth is probably still around.

Peter Sokolowski: A duel.

Emily Brewster: They're basically in agreement. It's funny to me, though. I think that in general, this is true. Certainly his example of a lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife, that sounds like idiomatic English, and I would not say a little lovely old rectangular French green whittling silver knife. I wouldn't say that.

Peter Sokolowski: This does get to the heart of the something, which is that, as you say, grammar is actually something that can be described. He's trying to describe it after the fact. He's saying, "This is a habit of language and I'm going to try to describe it."

Emily Brewster: And that is what grammar truly is from a linguist perspective.

Peter Sokolowski: Exactly.

Emily Brewster: Right? Grammar is not the rules that we teach. It is the rules that we simply absorb that are inherent in the language, not rules that we need to be taught.

Ammon Shea: I can think of a circumstance in which you can break the order legitimately, which is suppose you have a sofa and it's old and it's green, the green old sofa. Right?

Emily Brewster: Yeah.

Ammon Shea: Suppose you want to differentiate the green old sofa from a different color. The old green sofa, no the old blue sofa. So you could say either the green old sofa or the old green sofa, depending on the context in which it came up. And I know this is being nitpicky, but whenever somebody starts giving rules about language, I feel like getting nitpicky about it.

Peter Sokolowski: I think emphasis is a big part of this, but word order and emphasis go hand in hand with English syntax. We emphasize things by where we put them in a sentence as well as things like tone and inflection. But certainly if you want to emphasize one of these, you could put it in a slightly unnatural position.

Emily Brewster: Now Peter, you have an easier rule.

Peter Sokolowski: I found myself giving workshops quite frequently to teachers of English abroad, people who teach to learners of English, people who do not grow up in their countries or in their homes speaking English. Once in a while this will come up and I will see these teachers very often, extremely dedicated teachers and beautiful speakers of English, and they will twist themselves into knots to remember just this order. I'll see them looking up at the ceiling and saying, "Oh, it's a opinion and then color." I always think, well, I couldn't remember this. This is too complicated. And in these conferences for ESL, as we often call it, English as a second language, or TSOL, teachers of English to speakers of other languages, I would frequently encounter a scholar and researcher and speaker named Keith Folse. He's a researcher on vocabulary acquisition, a really great teacher of teachers and speaker about language.

He would always emphasize that this is easier than it looks, that all we have to do is simply say that whatever you're modifying the noun is will be either another noun or an adjective, and the adjective will be the farthest position from the noun and the more nouny the modifier is, I love the word nouny by the way, the closer it will be to the noun. So for example, if we're modifying the word wallet, which is a noun, and we want to use the word leather and black and new, we very naturally would say in English, the new black leather wallet. And that's because new is a pure adjective in this case. Black, like all colors, is fully both an adjective and a noun, so it's both, so it comes in the second position. The word leather is in fact not an adjective at all, it is in this case and attributive noun, so it is another noun modifying a noun. And so it will always come next to the noun that we're modifying.

So, a new black leather wallet, you simply wouldn't say in organic English or in natural speech, you wouldn't say a leather black new wallet. It's just a funny thing about the way we are wired. It is a fascinating subject to me. I have seen the relief on the part of all these teachers, for themselves but also for their students, don't think of that 10-word list of things, just think about noun, and what modifies a noun? An adjective. Okay. Now let's look at the categories of words. If we want to modify a noun, we can simply look at which words are adjectives and which words are other nouns and organize them that way.

Emily Brewster: You're listening to Word Matters. I'm Emily Brewster. More on adjective order coming up. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with new England Public Media.

Ammon Shea: I'm Ammon Shay. Do you have a question in about the origin, history, or meaning of a word? Email us at wordmatters@m-w.com.

Peter Sokolowski: I'm Peter Sokolowski. Join me every day for The Word of the Day, a brief look the history and definition of one word, available at Merriam-webster.com, or wherever you get your podcasts. And for more podcast from new England Public Media visit the NEPM podcast hub at nepm.org.

Emily Brewster: We're diving back into the way we order our adjectives, wondering if there are set phrases or widely known phrases from songs or from literature or that challenge these orders. I did come up with a few. I thought of two where the size came before the opinion, so the opinion being the word that kind of is about the speaker's regard for something. In Bob Dylan's song "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right," "walking down that long lonesome road, babe." And size comes before opinion. The long road comes before lonesome. It's not a lonesome long road, it's a long lonesome road. Also in a Grateful Dead song, "What a long, strange trip it's been." It's long and then strange. It is not a strange long trip. Both of those contradict both the royal order of adjectives and Mark Forsyth's order of adjectives, which I think is very interesting.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah. And long and strange, to me, those two are really interchangeable. I almost wonder if there's not a little exception for sort of monosyllabic modifiers. In this case you're kind of slightly emphasizing one or the other, but they both sound natural to me.

Emily Brewster: Oh my god, peter, if you're going to introduce the idea that you have to also know how many syllables the adjective is before you can determine where it goes in this order, that's going to get you a special circle of hell.

Peter Sokolowski: Yes, indeed. But the lonesome you can sort of see, but long and strange, to me, those could go either way. It's fascinating.

Emily Brewster: Yeah. It is, right. And then there's also, here's a quote from Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven," "And the silk and sad, uncertain rusting of each purple curtain." Silken, the material, comes before the opinion, before sad and uncertain. The silken sad, uncertain rustling. So I definitely think that Forsyth says that you like a maniac if you change any of these and I definitely don't think that is true.

Peter Sokolowski: No, but I think the reason his post went viral a few years ago is that when we point out something about English that we all do naturally and describe it relatively well, it's fascinating. There's something that is unconscious, but it's the way that the language works.

Emily Brewster: Right. And certainly the fact that we all automatically say the big red ball, we don't say the red big ball. Right? It really is so interesting. No one ever taught any of us to say big red ball.

Peter Sokolowski: No.

Emily Brewster: We just know that's what sounds right. And what sounds right is the essential true grammar of a language. It is what sounds right to the ear of the speakers of that language.

Peter Sokolowski: Exactly.

Emily Brewster: I feel like there's certain phrases that can go either way, certainly like a big, beautiful house in the country, a beautiful big house in the country. Those two can flip flop either way, I think. But big old can't, like a big old meanie.

Peter Sokolowski: Right, right, right.

Emily Brewster: You wouldn't say an old, big meanie. Right? That doesn't work.

Peter Sokolowski: It means something different. Right? It doesn't work.

Emily Brewster: Yeah. Yeah.

Ammon Shea: It's interesting, if you look for long strange trip, it does go back at least to the early 20th century and fairly consistent use, so well before the Grateful Dead would've used it, obviously. I think there is something about certain short adjectives that render them maybe a little more interchangeable. Mr. And Mrs. Dare have died, leaving all their property to the girl who made the long, strange trip from England to America by express. To me that doesn't sound at all maniacal.

Emily Brewster: A strange long trip. Yeah. Long strange is definitely the idiomatic phrasing to my ear, but I've been influenced heavily, I suppose, and regrettably, by the Grateful Dead.

Peter Sokolowski: It's a fascinating subject, and of course it leads me to think about those adjectives that come after nouns, which is that special category, that tiny little corner of English that is borrowed from French syntax. It's very unnatural, but it draws attention to this sort of officialness of a title like sergeant major or attorney general or poet laureate because we put the adjective after.

Emily Brewster: It's a very unusual characteristic for an English word.

Peter Sokolowski: As so often happens, we substitute an English or a native logic that flows into a vacuum, so a term like sergeant major or attorney general, or sergeant general is maybe the best example. General is not a rank, it just means general, the most general, the most widespread or the most authoritative. It's not the rank of general, but with sergeant major, for example, it means the most important sergeant, major meaning important. The problem is, of course, it's also a rank in the military hierarchy, so it's a little bit confusing. It can sound like their compounds, but they're not. In the United States, the highest rank is simply general, and then below it, you have brigadier general, you have major general, lieutenant general. It's like the term professor. We often now say full professor to make it seem somehow more important or complete, but the hierarchy usually goes something like assistant professor, and then associate, and then simply professor. The simplest is actually the full title.

Emily Brewster: Editors, it can be the same way.

Peter Sokolowski: Oh, right. Editor, especially in British English, it's usually used to refer to the editor in chief. And again, that's post nominal, also. That's a modifier that's given after the noun. It's an interesting question, this idea of order as being so important to meaning.

Emily Brewster: It is, of course. The order that you put your words in when you speak or write a sentence is absolutely essential to communicating. It's hugely important.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah. These orders that we're talking about that are so ingrained for people who grow up speaking English and are not natural for a learner of English, this really does show someone uncomfortable in English if the order of these terms is really far out of whack.

Emily Brewster: Peter, yes. I love how you talk about language as being a habit, and this is one of those habits. Until it becomes habitual, it can be a real struggle.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah, absolutely. I really sympathized with the learners of English because there's so many exceptions.

Emily Brewster: I think that these orders as they are put forward are good general rules, but they are not hard and fast. They are not dicta sent on high from the language gods.

Ammon Shea: They're just hard.

Emily Brewster: Let us know what you think about Word Matters. Review us wherever you get your podcasts or email us at wordmatters@m-w.com. You can also visit us nepm.org. And for the word of the day and all your general dictionary needs, visit merriam-webster.com. Our theme music is by Tobias Voit artwork by Annie Jacobson. Word Matters is produced by Adam Maid and John Voci. For Ammon Shea and and Peter Sokolowski, I'm Emily Brewster. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Love words? Need even more definitions?

Subscribe to America's largest dictionary and get thousands more definitions and advanced search—ad free!