Using adjectives can be difficult – there are guidelines to follow. In English, most adjectives go before the nouns they describe. For example, ‘the big dog’; ‘the blue chair’; ‘the sad clown’; ‘the happy student’; and so on.

Of course it is often necessary to use more than one adjective to describe a noun. This is where problems can arise for non-native speakers and writers, who lack the intuitive feel for what sounds or looks ‘right’. For example, a student may use the phrase ‘an old fat man’ in their composition. Technically this is acceptable, as it does not break any basic grammatical rules.

However use this with a native speaker and they might express confusion at the ordering of the adjectives. For reasons many native English speakers would not be able to adequately identify or explain, ‘old fat man’ just does not read well.

They would most likely rectify the situation by changing the order of the adjectives thus: ‘a fat old man’. This would make them feel more comfortable with the phrase. But why? What, exactly, has changed?

The answer: adjectives are separated into categories, each of which has its place in a general order. There is no definitive list that gives the order. However consensus seems to hold that ‘opinion’ adjectives should always precede ‘physical’ adjectives.

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Opinion-based adjectives can be split into two further categories: general and specific. If we are talking about food, for example, we would say ‘the amazing tasty meal’, rather than ‘the tasty amazing meal’. Why? It is because general opinion-based adjectives appear before specific, topic-based ones. The adjective ‘amazing’ can be applied generally: to food, books, films and so on. The adjective ‘tasty’, on the other hand, is generally only used with food (it does have other, more idiomatic meanings, but we’ll keep things simple). So ‘amazing tasty’ would be the correct order.

Let’s venture into the realm of physical adjectives now. Look again at the first two phrases above: ‘the red book’ and ‘the old red book’. Clearly, the first phrase contains one adjective (‘red’), whilst the second phrase holds two (‘old’, ‘red’).
But why do we say ‘the old red book’ and not ‘the red old book’? Is it possible to write ‘the red old book’ instead?

In short, no. This is where order comes into play. We always put an adjective related to age before an adjective related to colour, e.g. ‘the new (AGE) green (COLOUR) car’ and not ‘the green (COLOUR) new (AGE) car’.

Below is a list of physical adjectival categories in generally agreed order, starting from first to last (‘last’ being those adjectives that would generally appear directly before the noun).

Category Example
Size Big, small
State/condition Dirty, angry, hot, easy
Age Young, old, new
Shape Circular, square, fat, short, long
Pattern Striped, plain, spotted
Colour Red, blue, green, white, black
Origin British, Catalan, European
Material Wooden, metal, paper, cotton
Brand Nike, Desigual, Apple
Purpose Shopping (bag, for example), running (shoes)

So we can now begin to establish and impose order on the adjectives we use, e,g:

‘The angry (CONDITION) young (AGE) American (ORIGIN) boy’

‘The plain (PATTERN) cotton (MATERIAL) dress’

‘His blue (COLOUR) suede (MATERIAL) running (PURPOSE) shoes’

‘My big (SIZE) fat (SHAPE) Greek (ORIGIN) wedding’

‘The beautiful (OPINION) angry (STATE) lady’

Remember that opinion-based adjectives go before physical ones.

Take our test to get a better idea of how adjective order works.

A. Porter

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