Order of Adjectives - Cumulative Adjectives

Have you seen that huge, musty, old grammar book? It has so many fun and interesting facts!

To describe a noun in English, we use an adjective. But what do you do when you have multiple adjectives for one noun?

Well, you can’t just randomly write them in a sentence. There’s a special order for them depending on what category they fall into.

There are 9 general categories of adjectives, based on the characteristics they describe. Not everyone agrees on the exact categories, but most people follow a similar pattern. And you should use this order whether the adjectives come before or after the noun.

It’s common to have one or two adjectives in front of a noun. And sometimes we even use three. Using more than that is rare, but if you do want to string that many together, just follow this order!

If you don’t follow this convention, your listener or reader will still understand what you mean. But your sentence will sound a little funny or jarring to them.

Using the correct order of adjectives in English is something that native speakers do automatically, but it can be really tricky if you’re learning English as a second language. But don’t worry – as you practice, it will start to get easier.

Cumulative adjectives example

This is the general order to follow: (determiner), quantity, opinion, size, physical quality/shape, age, color, proper adjectives, material/origin, type/purpose/qualifier.


(Determiner)

The first word in a string of cumulative adjectives may be a determiner, and this is a word used with a noun that helps to identify it. While a determiner isn’t necessarily an adjective, it’s often part of sentences with cumulative adjectives.

Determiners can be words like articles, cardinal or ordinal numbers, demonstratives, or possessive adjectives.

Here are some possible determiners:

  • Articles: a, an, the
  • Cardinal numbers: one, ten, twenty
  • Ordinal numbers: first, tenth, twentieth
  • Demonstratives: this, that, these, those
  • Possessive adjectives: my, your (singular or plural), his, her, its, our, their

Quantity

Quantity sometimes overlaps with the “determiner” category. Adjectives of quantity are words that describe how many things you’re talking about.

Here are some examples:

  • Four, one hundred, a million
  • Few, many
  • Some, most

Opinion

As the name suggests, an opinion adjective describes what you think of the noun. Some people divide this category into two: general and specific opinions.

General opinions can describe most nouns. For example, you can use the word good to describe many different things: a good book, a good parent, a good meal.

But with specific opinions, you can only use them for certain categories of nouns. For instance, you can say “a delicious meal,” but you can’t say “a delicious book.” As well, you can say “a friendly person” or “a friendly cat,” but you can’t say “a friendly book.”

In adjective order, we put general opinions in front of specific ones. For example:

  • What a lovely, friendly teacher! 
  • Alberto has a big, yummy bowl of soup for lunch.  

Size

Next in line we have adjectives that describe the size of something. Here are some examples:

  • Big, large, great, grand
  • Small, tiny, little, miniscule
  • Tall, short

Physical Quality/Shape

Then, you describe what something looks like.

There are a few disagreements on how to divide and place this category in the order of adjectives. Some people treat physical quality and shape as the same category. Others don’t.

According to the Cambridge Dictionary of English, there is a difference between physical quality and shape, and physical quality goes first.

However, some people don’t bother to make two separate categories because there is some overlap. And others put the shape category farther down the list, between age and color.

If you want to follow the Cambridge standard, here are some examples of physical quality:

  • Rough, bumpy
  • Smooth, soft
  • Thin, thick
  • Messy, neat

And here are some examples of shape:

  • Round, oval, square
  • Triangular, circular
  • Moon-shaped, heart-shaped
  • Geometric, curvy, flat
  • Narrow, wide

Age

This is where you describe how old (or young) something is. For example:

  • Old, mature, aged, ancient
  • Young, youthful
  • New, modern, contemporary
  • Centuries-old, hours-old

Color

Next comes any color in the rainbow! For example:

  • Red, yellow, orange
  • Grayish, bluish
  • Peach, lemon-colored

Proper Adjectives

In this category, we have proper adjectives like nationalities, cultures, or religions. Remember that these should always be capitalized!

Here are some examples:

  • Somali, Vietnamese, Chilean, Canadian
  • Inuit, Mayan, Sumerian
  • Hindu, Jewish, Taoist, Evangelical

Material/Origin

These adjectives describe what something is made of or where it comes from. For example:

  • Linen, cotton, wool, silk
  • Oak, pine, mahogany
  • Polyester, acrylic, plastic
  • Metal, iron, steel

Type/Purpose/Qualifier

When it comes to these categories, there is some difference of opinion on what to call them. Not everyone separates these categories, or indeed uses them at all.

But the important thing to understand is that these adjectives explain what something is used for.

For example:

  • race car
  • all-purpose flour
  • cleaning rag
  • golf club
  • sleeping bag
  • bowling shoes
  • riding boots

Punctuating Cumulative Adjectives

Now that you know what order the adjectives should come in, how do you properly write them in a sentence?

Two Adjectives

If you only have two adjectives in front of a noun, sometimes you use a comma, and sometimes you don’t.

If the adjectives come from two different categories, skip the comma. For example:

  • That was a large tasty cake!
  • Have you seen her big fluffy cat?
  • He’s wearing a shiny silver ring.

If they come from the same category, use a comma or and.

  • Cody is such an irritating, annoying little brother.
  • Look at that old, mature tree!
  • That sculpture is bent and twisted.
  • A red and white flag is the symbol of Japan.

However, keep in mind that you never put a comma between a determiner and an adjective.

More Than Two Adjectives

If you want to string lots of adjectives together, place commas between them. But never put a comma between the final cumulative adjective and the noun.

Here are some examples:

  • I love that fancy, old, silver fork.
  • My grandmother was a pretty, short, skinny, Romanian princess.
  • Marie has an amazing, enormous, spotted lizard as a pet.
  • Jordan loves to walk in his father’s tiny, round, colorful, vegetable garden.

Cumulative Adjectives After the Noun

In most of these examples, the adjectives come before the noun. However, you can put adjectives afterward.

When you do this, you may need both commas and the word and.

If there are only two adjectives, just use and, not a comma. Follow this rule even if the adjectives come from the same category. For example:

  • My room is comfortable and warm.
  • Their toothbrushes are pink and white.

If there are three or more adjectives, use commas between the first words in the list, and and between the last two. For example:

  • Dimitri’s kitchen is hot, stuffy, and smelly.
  • Did you know that Camille is smart, beautiful, and funny?

Conclusion

While this might seem like a lot of information, don’t be scared! With practice, it will get a lot easier. And, it will make you sound like a native speaker!

So, keep listening to how others speak, and pay attention when you read. That way, you’ll become familiar with what sounds right.

And in the meantime, check out the other grammar pages on this website. There are lots of interesting things to learn!

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