Should We Follow Any Order with Adjectives?

Key Takeaways:

  • The order of adjectives in English follows a specific pattern known as the Royal Order of Adjectives.
  • This standard order ranks adjectives based on their type or meaning.
  • Knowing the proper adjective order enhances writing clarity and helps avoid ambiguity.
  • While some flexibility is allowed, following the set pattern is considered grammatically correct.
  • Understanding adjective order conventions aids in polishing writing skills and style.

Why Is There a Particular Order to Adjectives in English?

The order and position of adjectives impact how a noun phrase is interpreted. Adjectives describe or provide more information about a noun. Using multiple adjectives together can make a description more vivid and precise. However, if the adjectives are not placed in the proper sequence, the meaning can become garbled or confused.

Adjective order provides a consistent structure that eliminates possible ambiguity. Adhering to the standard pattern allows writers to communicate descriptions clearly and enables readers to grasp the intended meaning quickly. Establishing a conventional ranking system reduces uncertainty regarding which adjective pertains to what attribute of the noun.

Over time, the customary sequence of adjectives has developed based on logic – grouping words with a similar function together – along with considerations of how impactful the description is. This standardized method delivers clarity amid multiple adjectives and preserves the integrity of the overall message.

What Is the Royal Order of Adjectives?

The universally accepted order of adjectives in English is known as the Royal Order of Adjectives. This hierarchical system categorizes adjectives into logical groups and ranks them accordingly.

The Royal Order of Adjectives is as follows:

  1. Determiner – articles (a, an, the), possessives (my, your, his, her, its, our, their), demonstratives (this, that, these, those)
  2. Quantity/Number – numerals (one, two, three, etc.), quantifiers (some, many, few, etc.)
  3. Opinion – adjectives that convey the writer’s subjective judgment (beautiful, charming, marvelous, etc.)
  4. Size – adjectives related to physical dimensions (tiny, immense, petite, etc.)
  5. Age – adjectives indicating age (ancient, new, young, etc.)
  6. Shape – adjectives describing physical form (circular, square, robust, etc.)
  7. Color – adjectives denoting colors (red, purple, yellow, etc.)
  8. Origin – adjectives specifying source or place of origin (French, American, alien, etc.)
  9. Material – adjectives designating what something is made of (wooden, metal, plastic, etc.)
  10. Purpose – adjectives conveying purpose or qualifier (cleaning, gardening, reading, etc.)

It is important to note that not all adjectives need to be used, and some adjectives may not fit into this order. However, when using multiple adjectives together before a noun, it is considered grammatically correct to rank them based on the Royal Order of Adjectives.

How Does Proper Adjective Order Promote Clarity?

Arranging adjectives in the proper sequence eliminates ambiguity and confusion. Adhering to the Royal Order allows writers to communicate exactly which attributes they intend to convey. It also enables readers to correctly interpret the modifiers and descriptive phrases.

For example, the noun phrase “big red plastic Japanese box” is easily understood when the adjectives are positioned per the Royal Order. However, if written as “Japanese big plastic red box” the meaning becomes muddled. Is it a big Japanese box made of plastic and red in color? Or a big red plastic box made in Japan?

Proper positioning provides context and prevents misunderstandings. The orderly ranking expends the guesswork and establishes the relationships between the adjectives and the noun they describe. Consistent adherence to the set pattern is mutually beneficial for both the writer and reader.

When Can the Order Be Flexible?

In certain situations, writers may take some liberty and bend the rigid sequence for stylistic or emphatic purposes. This flexibility generally occurs when the adjectives are from distinctly different groups, so their position does not affect the overall meaning.

For instance, it would be acceptable to say “perfect little French cafe” instead of “little perfect French cafe” – the reversal of opinion and size adjectives does not alter the description’s clarity. However, upending adjectives from the same group could impede comprehension, like saying “tall big man” rather than the correct “big tall man.”

Informal language, poetry, slogans, or dialogue may relax the rules, but for formal writing and regular usage, adhering to the set order is advisable to avoid ambiguity. While some exceptions are permitted, the sequence of adjectives should not be haphazard.

When Using Multiple Adjectives, Why Is Order Important?

When a noun is modified by a string of several adjectives, properly ranking them becomes critical. For complex descriptions with a long list of adjectives, the Royal Order establishes unambiguous relationships and prevents unintended meanings.

Out of logical order, a muddled portrait emerges. But in the correct sequence, the adjectives work together to paint a precise picture in the reader’s mind. Each adjective builds upon the previous one by classifying another defining quality of the noun.

For example, “The big, round, shiny, red rubber kickball rolled down the steep hill.” The size is established first, then the shape, sheen, color, material, and finally its movement. Misplacing any of those adjectives could change the reader’s understanding. Order creates cohesion.

How Can Understanding Order of Adjectives Help Improve Writing?

Knowing the conventional sequence is beneficial for both grammatical accuracy and improving writing style. When adjectives precede a noun, writers can consciously rank them per the set pattern to enhance clarity and readability. This organization streamlines communication and prevents confusion.

Arranging descriptions logically promotes coherence within a sentence and paragraph. Order establishes connections between ideas and reinforces meaning rather than derailing it. Command of adjective order techniques demonstrates writing proficiency and skill.

In addition, purposeful ordering of adjectives can be used to artistic effect. Placing an adjective out of its normal position can strategically draw the reader’s attention or focus to a particular detail or quality. When used judiciously, deviations from the standard order can underscore or amplify aspects of the description.

What Is Considered Grammatically Correct Adjective Order?

The universally acknowledged standard sequence is prescribed by the Royal Order of Adjectives. Adhering strictly to this conventional ranking is universally considered grammatically correct by prescriptive grammar authorities.

While some variations are permitted for rhetorical impact, flouting the established order arbitrarily often signals improper technique. However, when writing for a general audience the context also determines what constitutes a grammar mistake versus an intentional styling choice.

For example, “Three big hairy brown dogs barked at the tall metal fence.” The adjectives follow the proper order – quantity, opinion, size, color, material – no rules are broken. But “Hairy big three brown dogs barked…” would be considered incorrect by grammarians. The reversed opinion and quantity adjectives muddle the meaning.

When in doubt, defaulting to the Royal Order of Adjectives keeps descriptions unambiguous and content grammatically sound. The sequence can be flexed slightly for emphasis, but writers should not haphazardly mix the order without purpose.

Why Is It Called the “Royal Order of Adjectives” – Where Did This Standard Sequence Originate?

The “Royal Order” moniker stems from a seminal academic paper published in the 1980s that solidified the conventional ranking. In the paper, linguist Rodney Huddleston analogized the ordered system of adjectives to the hierarchy of order used in conferring British titles and honors.

Just as there is a particular sequence to bestowing royal titles, there is a set order for arranging adjectives in English. Hence Huddleston coined the term “Royal Order of Adjectives” to describe this standard pattern.

However, the concept of organized adjective classes and sequential ranking based on meaning can be traced back much earlier in historical grammars and literature. Huddleston formalized common rules that were informally practiced but not overtly defined. His influential paper codified and propagated the logical adjective order.

How Can I Remember the Correct Sequence of the Royal Order?

Mnemonic devices and memorization techniques can help ingrain the proper adjective order:

  • Determiner, Quantity, Opinion, Size, Age, Shape, Color, Origin, Material, Purpose – using the first letters as cues
  • Reciting: “Determiner before Quantity; Quantity before Opinion; Opinion before Size; Size before Age,” and so on
  • Visualizing a map or spectrum with categories moving from subjective to objective
  • Associating categories with common examples, like Age = young/new, Shape = square/round
  • Highlighting adjectives in texts to see the standard order in action
  • Practicing ranking jumbled adjective sets in the correct sequence

With repetition, the logical progression of the Royal Order will become second nature. Consistently applying the sequence will make it the default in your own writing.

What Are Some Examples of Proper Adjective Order in English?

Here are some examples of noun phrases with properly ordered adjectives per the Royal Order system:

  • This fascinating old Italian violin
  • Two small round copper pans
  • Her beautiful flowing purple chiffon gown
  • Ten thick rectangular beige photo albums
  • A freezing cold yet invigorating Icelandic swim
  • The scrumptious gooey double chocolate fudge cake
  • A lovely little French sidewalk cafe
  • An exquisite antique mahogany desk

Observe how the adjectives are strategically ranked to eliminate ambiguity and paint a vivid picture. Following the set sequence results in clear and descriptive phrases.

How Does Adjective Order Differ Across Other Languages?

Interestingly, the hierarchical system of ordering adjectives is unique to English. Other languages take different approaches to ranking multiple adjectives.

For example, in French, adjectives usually follow the noun. The order of multiple adjectives is not fixed but is simply based on conventional ear – what sounds most pleasing. In Spanish, longer adjectives tend to follow shorter ones, regardless of meaning.

In Hebrew, the noun’s definiteness determines adjective order – definite nouns are followed by adjectives while indefinite nouns are preceded by them. These examples demonstrate that structured sequencing of adjectives is a distinctive feature of English.

Does the Order Change for Postpositive Adjectives?

The Royal Order specifically applies to adjectives that directly precede the noun, known as prepositive adjectives. When adjectives follow the noun, termed postpositive adjectives, ordering is slightly more flexible but still influenced by the standard ranking system.

With postpositive adjectives, the opinion category tends to directly follow the noun. Categories conveying more objective qualities like size, shape, color, origin, etc. tend to occur in their conventional order thereafter.

For example:

  • The pizza hot and delicious came out of the oven. (Opinion adjective after noun)
  • The child lonely and abandoned gazed out the window. (Opinion adjective after noun)

But the overall impact of deviating from the typical postpositive order is much less than shifting prepositive adjectives. The Royal Order’s effects are most prominent and binding before the noun.

Does Adjective Order Change With Different Styles of Writing?

The conventions of ordering adjectives are applicable across all styles and genres of writing, from formal academic texts to informal blogging. However, some contexts allow for more flexibility than others.

In formal academic and technical writing, adherence to the set order is expected. But creative fiction and poetry can take artistic license and eschew the rules for expressive purposes. Advertising copy may also consciously invert the order to be punchy and memorable.

While bending the order is discouraged in formal writing, stylistic deviations are more tolerated in casual contexts like conversational dialogue or social media. But the recognized sequence remains ingrained as the grammatically “correct” default, regardless of genre or formality level.

Conclusion: A Logical Linguistic System for Clarifying Complex Descriptions

The Royal Order of Adjectives provides a structured method for English speakers and writers to organize multiple adjectives in a sensible, clear way. This hierarchical ranking eliminates ambiguity and streamlines communication. Knowing the conventional sequence enhances grammatical proficiency and rhetorical command. With some stylistic flexibility permitted, the standard order strikes the right balance between linguistic prescription and artistic flair


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