Adjectives in English!

Adjectives in English


The global popularity of the English language is not based on how easy it is to learn. On the contrary, even native speakers make many mistakes and errors while speaking and writing English.

Adjectives are words used to describe nouns. Most of the time, we place adjectives before the noun. The order of placing these attributive adjectives correctly is very particular in English, and it is one way in which non-natives can give themselves away in written language.

Problems with the order of adjectives

Consider the following examples:

1. Mandy had a German black old car.

2. Peter’s blue new jumper got dirty in the mud.

In essence, there is nothing wrong with these sentences. They make perfect sense – except that they ‘sound’ wrong to an educated English speaker. This is because in English, apart from some leeway in terms of emphasis, the order of adjectives has to be followed quite strictly.

The order of adjectives

Let’s say you want to describe a car. While it is not feasible that you would need use any more than 4 adjectives together to describe it, there is no reason why you could not use up to 8 adjectives in a row. The problem is getting those words in the right order to satisfy the demands of the English language.

It is helpful to group the adjectives you may wish to use.

A. Objective adjectives come first.

1. Opinion adjectives: these adjectives explain your feelings towards the noun or your observations of the noun. Your opinion of this noun may not be the same as that of others. Opinion adjectives include nice, pretty, silly, ridiculous, delicious, expensive.

Even opinion adjectives have a particular order. First, come the general opinion adjectives, then the specific opinion adjectives. General opinion adjectives include good, bad, nice, nasty, wonderful, and terrible. Specific opinion adjectives describe a finite range of nouns: food (e.g. delicious), furniture and buildings (e.g. well-designed), and people and animals (e.g. intelligent).

B. Next comes to some objective adjectives which describe the physical features of the noun.

2. Size adjectives: describe how big or small a noun is. Some examples: gigantic, minute, enormous

3. Age adjectives: describe the age of the noun. Some examples are young, old, ancient, antediluvian

4. Shape adjectives: describe the shape of the noun. Some examples are round, oblong, triangular, cylindrical.

5. Colour adjectives: describe the color of the noun, such as black, white, bluish, orange-tinged.

C. Now come to a range of adjectives in relation to the noun’s origin, material, and purpose.

6. Adjectives of origin: An origin adjective describes the origin or source of the noun, such as Australian, northern, Danish.

7. Material adjectives: A material adjective describes what the noun is made from. Material adjectives include metallic, cardboard, glass, plastic.

8. Purpose or qualifier adjectives: These adjectives describe what the noun can be used for. These adjectives often end with ‘-ing’, such as sleeping (bag), baking (tin), chopping (board), laughing (gas) or can be noun qualifiers (e.g. baby + carriage, ice + cream, Easter + bunny).

Finally, when you put all of these different adjectives together in the correct English order, you may end up with a description as ridiculous – but grammatically correct – like this one:

Yesterday I bought a magnificent shiny new oval maroon Swedish carbon fiber racing car.

Note the lack of commas in this sentence. Commas are not required when the adjectives used are not similar in meaning and where each adds something different to the description of the noun. These adjectives are called cumulative adjectives.

Of course, sometimes we must change the order in order to give emphasis to a particular emphasis. Consider the reversal of the order of the adjectives and the use of the comma for greater effect in the following sentence:

I was terrified of the big, ugly dog. [The ugliness of the dog is less important to the writer than its size.]

Sometimes adjectives have to be positioned next to each other simply because they are linked to one another. Consider the placement of faded and silver in the following sentence:

Last night I found a small faded silver Cuban coin under my bed.

All in all, the order of adjectives is one of the more difficult concepts found in English. Always read over your written work and find any groups of adjectives you have used. Check that the order of your adjectives follows the pattern presented above, and if it does not, make sure you have a good reason for going outside the rules.

The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage, 3rd ed., R.W. Burchfield (editor), Oxford University Press, Oxford UK, 1996

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