A few years ago, a tweet addressing word order went viral. It is rare to see Grammar resonate with so many people, so let us have a look at what was going on:
Matthew Anderson quotes from ‘The Elements of Eloquence: How to Turn the Perfect English Phrase’ by Mark Forsyth which provides us with a list that ‘every English speaker uses’. In fact, if you look around you will find similar lists throughout the internet which are mostly identical with only minor differences. We will use the following list:
Opinion, General description, Size, Age, Shape, Colour, Place of origin, Material, Use/Type/Purpose, (Sample noun)
Now let us provide you with a few example sentences to help make sense of that. Putting this order into a chart can help to provide a better overview of how the order of adjectives works. We will start with the example sentence from the tweet.
- Lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife
- A round plastic bowl
- Cute tiny kitten
- A pink curling iron
- A great big bushy beard
- A beautiful aggressive green venomous snake
- Old yellow bricks
|Opinion||General description||Size||Age||Shape||Colour||Place of origin||Material||Use/Type/Purpose||Sample noun|
Using these or similar examples, you can see which types of adjectives you could add and where in the sentence you would have to place them. As always, there are examples that prove the rule.
Take the example sentence ‘old yellow bricks’. You would not typically say ‘yellow old bricks’, but it is in fact possible: you can reverse the order of adjectives that describe the physical state (size, shape, colour). One reason for that might be that you want to emphasise that they are yellow old bricks (and not red old bricks). The same goes for adjectives that provide a general description.
The good news is that deviating from the expected order of adjectives will not prevent others from understanding you. Everyone knows what you mean when you talk about your wooden Dutch brown old big shoes but they will also notice that something does not sound right. So try to follow the pattern and call them what they are: big old brown Dutch wooden shoes, or just call them clogs.
If you want to check your understanding of the principles of adjective order now, try out this quick little exercise and let us know how you did!