Learn how the order of adjectives works
You certainly use a lot of them when you write.
In its simplest forms, you add an adjective before a noun or plural nouns, or after the verb to be.
They can add descriptive properties quickly and easily to any noun.
Sue, you know that adjectives are words that modify nouns.
But do you know that there are many different types that can modify a noun or pronoun?
You might be surprised to learn that definite and indefinite articles are adjectives.
Not only that, do you know that there is a set order when you use two or more?
Learning how to understand and use English adjectives better is one of the easiest ways to improve and tighten your writing.
- The basic order
- Practice using the correct order with this quick exercise.
- Order of colours
- The basic types of adjectives
- Comparative and superlative adjectives
- The possessive adjective
- The predicate adjective
- Demonstrative adjectives and pronouns
- Coordinate adjectives
- Cumulative adjectives
- Do you want to practice using adjectives correctly in your writing?
- Summary of adjectives
The basic order
There is a set order. Although you might think you use them instinctively as a native speaker, learning how to place them in the correct order will help you write much better.
There are nine possible forms, but you would rarely use more than three or four. However, they must always be in the correct sequence.
Here are some examples in the table below.
If you say four delightful large British knives, you are using number, opinion, size an origin in the correct order.
Practice using the correct order with this quick exercise.
Arrange the adjectives in the right order according to the table above.
1. There was ________________________ outside the house.
(a dog, black, terrifying, huge)
2. I gave her ________________________ for her birthday.
(some handkerchiefs, beautiful, white, cotton)
3. There was ________________________ hanging on the wall.
(a picture, old, wonderful, Impressionist)
4. Have you seen ________________________ lying on the floor?
(a pair of gloves, brown, leather)
5. She was wearing ________________________ .
(a sweater, winter, woolen)
6. There is ________________________ in this town.
(a church, Gothic, very old)
7. My mother bought ________________________for the picnic.
(several plates, plastic, blue, small)
8. ________________________ didn’t feel comfortable living with the British family.
(the girl, French, fifteen-year-old)
9. There were ________________________ on the shelf.
(a lot of ornaments, china, little, useless)
10. Why don’t you wear ________________________ ? It’s rather cold.
(your coat, thick, fur)
Order of colours
White usually comes second, or last in a list of colours.
For example with two colours, black and white, red and white, blue and white.
For three or more colours, white comes second as with red, white and blue.
Related reading: 20 Common Grammar Mistakes And Grammatical Errors To Avoid
The basic types of adjectives
Comparative and superlative adjectives
With one-syllable, adding er makes them comparative adjectives. For one-syllable adjectives ending in y, they use ier.
The same applies to superlative adjectives, except you add est or iest.
For two or more syllables, you use more or less for comparative and most and least for superlative.
A cooler day than yesterday. – It was the coolest day of the week.
A sunnier afternoon than the morning. – It was the sunniest time of the day.
This car is more expensive. – It is the most expensive car.
It was a less practical solution. – It was the least practical solution.
The possessive adjective
Many adjectives are formed by using the possessive form.
For example, a tree’s leaves, a butcher’s hook or a horse’s tail.
The predicate adjective
It is one that follows a linking verb and adjectives modify the subject of the linking verb. It agrees with the gender and number if a pronoun replaces a noun.
The most common form is when adjectives follow the verb to be, but other verbs such as seem, look, sound and taste are also often used.
For example, Jane was tall and slender, it is a sunny afternoon, he looks drunk, she seems friendly or everybody sounds happy.
The opposite is an attributive adjective when it comes before the noun.
For example, a friendly crowd, an old drunk man, a sunny disposition or a tall and slender woman.
Demonstrative adjectives and pronouns
Demonstrative adjectives are usually demonstrative pronouns such as the words this, that, these and those.
For example, this big green dictionary, that old wooden armchair, or those beautiful red shoes.
You can read more about these forms on Your Dictionary.
These carry the same weight. It doesn’t matter which comes first because they have equal emphasis.
The following adjectives are coordinate.
George has a long, bushy beard or George has a bushy, long beard.
My rusty, old car or my old, rusty car.
The general rule is to separate them with a comma.
These build their meaning in one particular order. You can not switch them around and still make sense.
Bill wore his white tennis shoes. You can’t say Bill wore his tennis white shoes.
Mary bought a bright blue sweater. You can’t say Mary bought a blue bright sweater.
A modern American romance novel. You can’t say, an American romance modern novel.
Another aspect is that cumulative adjectives are generally not separated by a comma and are usually limited in use to only two or three adjectives.
Any more and a phrase starts to sound quite awkward.
Do you want to practice using adjectives correctly in your writing?
Here are two quick writing prompts for you to try.
Look at the two images below, which both have a fantasy theme.
Can you describe the images in a few sentences using appropriate and correctly ordered adjectives?
Related reading: The Best Writing Prompts To Help Spark Your Imagination
Summary of adjectives
If you completed the short exercise earlier in this article, here are the correct answers.
1. There was a terrifying huge black dog.
2. I gave her some beautiful white cotton handkerchiefs.
3. There was a wonderful old Impressionist picture.
4. Have you seen a pair of brown leather gloves?
5. She was wearing a winter woollen sweater.
6. There is a very old Gothic church.
7. My mother bought several small blue plastic plates.
8. The fifteen-year-old French girl.
9. There were a lot of useless little china ornaments.
10. Why don’t you wear your thick fur coat?
I am sure you had no problem and got them all correct.
Understanding when to use different types of adjectives and how to order them is easy once you know the basic grammatical rules.
You can always do a quick check of your use if you are already using Grammarly or ProWritingAid to help you with your writing corrections.
However, it is always better to know the rules and how to apply them to your writing when you are proofreading.
No grammar rule is set in stone. But it is a truism that you should know the rules before you try to (creatively) break them.
Related grammar reading: So, Can You Start A Sentence With But, And Or Yet?