Order Please, Mr. Adjective

Not so long ago I caught a bit of a podcast from Mignon Fogarty, also known as Grammar Girl, talking about the correct order of multiple adjectives in an adjectival phrase. (I know. Sounds like a wild party, but let’s try to focus here.) When using more than one adjective to modify a noun—and for the purposes of didactics, let’s ignore the fact that you probably don’t want to do that most of the time—how do we decide what order to put them in?

Most native speakers have little difficulty with this task. We tend, without even thinking about it, to follow the same basic order for the most common types of adjectives:


Most of these are second nature to us. We would never refer to “a yellow, stupid shirt” (color before opinion) or “an Armenian, old carpet-seller” (origin before age). These examples just sound wrong. There is some give and take—shape and color can sometimes go either way—but the basic litany is pretty well fixed. We might refer to “a dismal, mud-grey, slack-shouldered, American, polyester leisure suit,” (opinion, color, shape, origin, material, purpose) but surely never “a polyester, mud-grey, American, slack-shouldered, dismal leisure suit” unless purely for comedic purposes.

But…how do we know to do this? Is it only that we are accustomed to this ordering, or is there an intrinsic sense to it? In all likelihood, the custom is too well-ingrained for us to objectively establish anything inherent about it, but let’s examine the list and see if anything jumps out at us.

First guess: There seems to be a movement from more-to-less subjective. Opinion is, of course, the most subjective of all. We are offering a judgement as to the quality or value of the object. By the time we get to purpose, the adjective has almost become part of the noun (leisure suit, drinking fountain, voting booth), which is why it wants the nearest proximity. Similarly, material is (literally) built in. If our suit were made of camelhair rather than polyester, it would still beg to be called a “camelhair leisure suit.”

But what about color and shape? There’s no question of subjectivity there. Red is red. Square is square. But what about oblong? Or cloudy? Or pale? Or sloping? All would qualify as color or shape descriptors, but they don’t tell us much. At least nothing very specific.

The more I think about it, the more I think the pattern awards specificity with proximity. The more specific (and perhaps necessary) the descriptor, the closer to the noun it gets to sit. We might refer to “a big, old, black, oak credenza” (size, age, color, material) but we would probably say “a big, black, oak, Victorian credenza.” (At least I would.) The specificity of Victorian (as opposed to old) trumps the vaguer descriptors like big and black. Okay, maybe “a big, Victorian, black, oak credenza” sounds just as good. But part of the problem is that comma between black and oak. We read “black, oak” but we hear “black oak”—thereby turning “black” into a modifier for “oak”and marrying the color adjective to the material adjective, making it more specific, more intrinsic. Here’s another way of looking at it. If we are referring to a Siberian pochard with a red crest, we can call it a “red-crested Siberian pochard,” but if all Siberian pochards have red crests, then we’d tend to call it a “Siberian red-crested pochard.” It becomes part of the bird’s name, therefore both intrinsic and specific.

But maybe I’m thinking about it backwards. It feels natural to refer to “a creepy, old, black oak credenza,” as opposed to any other order, but creepy is the only word that really interests me in that description. Why should a credenza be creepy? Maybe we should investigate before Lord Manners comes back and finds us rummaging through his credenza drawers. We probably don’t really need to know that the creepy piece of furniture is old or made of black oak, * so maybe the first word in the list is really the important one. I suppose it depends how you look at it. Maybe the intrinsic, specific modifiers stay close to the noun, while the more subjective ones keep their distance. There does seem to be some prioritizing going on.

Anyway, unless you’re planning to use stacks of adjectives, then none of this matters much. Adjectives, of course, are much maligned by the doyens of literary style. Voltaire said “they are frequently the greatest enemy of the substantive.” Clifton Fadiman called them “the banana peel of the parts of speech.” And sure, they can be abused like most anything else, and I’m all in favor of erring of the side of less. But plainness shouldn’t be fetishized either, or your work may turn into a drab, nondescript, pedestrian, colorless, amorphous, purposeless bore.

In fact, I find this rather trivial question of proper adjectival order interesting specifically because we native speakers follow it without being taught, without even questioning the why or the wherefore. And that’s intriguing. Where did it come from? What does it mean?

Any thoughts?

*Try googling “creepy credenza.” You’ll get eight results, four of which are in Italian.

(Cross posted at the Writer’s Coop.)

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