Sometimes things just don’t sound right. We maybe don’t know why, but they just aren’t right. This problem happens a lot when we hear or read lists of adjectives. For example, imagine that someone said this to you: A leather radical bulky black jacket. The adjectives might be accurate, but it just doesn’t sound right. Why? Well, did you know that in English there is an order that we use for adjectives? (Try: A radical bulky black leather jacket. Ah. That feels better, doesn’t it?!)
We love adjectives, and we mostly know how to use them. When learning a new language, adjectives are usually high on the list of learning. We love to describe what we see, hear, taste, feel, and experience. The adjectives we use allow us to fully share our human experiences with the people around us. (Just so it’s clear, an adjective describes a noun.) As listeners to stories, we often interrupt for details (adjectives) so that we can picture the story in our mind: What kind of dog? What type of car? What colour of hair? What kind of weather? We love those details: they paint a picture for the listener. So, maybe that’s why, even if we haven’t been formally taught the order in a few generations, we know when it’s not being followed. But why have an order in the first place? If you look at the order, it seems to place the more important details closest to the noun. But honestly, who really knows (if you do find out, please let me know!).
So what is the order? There are 10 different categories (depending on what source you are looking at) that adjectives fall into. When we’re writing or telling a good story, it’s important to follow the order so that the words don’t confuse the audience. Here’s the order:
- Opinion: radical, beautiful, painful, unusual, useless
- Size: big, small, giant, short
- Physical quality: rough, sharp, smooth, soft, messy, thin
- Shape: rectangular, round, square, oblong, flat
- Age: old, youthful, young, aged
- Colour: black, purple, orange, puce
- Origin: Canadian, Calgarian, British, Kenyan, western
- Material: leather, wood, metal, plastic, cloth
- Type: all-purpose, three-sided, t-shaped
- Purpose: cooking, cleaning, polishing, sleeping, roasting
But what about the Big Bad Wolf? Shouldn’t that be the bad big wolf? Apparently there are some rules around small groups of words that have parts of the word that repeat, yet have different vowel sounds. English. Rules for everything, but also exceptions to it all! Here’s a link to an article about this specific rule if you’re interested: Reduplication.
Punctuation. I know what you’re thinking: how do you properly punctuate all of these adjectives? Well, I hope that you don’t use 10 different adjectives in one description, but I guess you could. Punctuation comes down to the categories the adjectives are in. If more than two adjectives come from the same category, separate the adjectives with commas. For example, The painful, beautiful, exquisite, challenging film is a must-see. (I used the Oxford/serial comma, but it’s not needed here.)
Hyphens. You can’t talk about adjectives without talking about hyphens. Hyphens are joiners whose job is to glue words together, creating compound words. The biggest rule about hyphens is that if you can avoid using them, that’s good. The fewer hyphens the better! (That’s in general, really: they less punctuation on a page, the better…especially for business writing, but perhaps that’s a different post entirely.) Compound modifiers would include adjectives like cat-friendly house (not the house that is cat friendly), a state-of-the-art house design, or a family-owner restaurant. At times, hyphens help to add clarity to a sentence when needed. For example, Use the red colour-filter (not the red-colour filter). There are other hyphen rules (like for ages and numbers), but I think this is enough information to help you with your adjectives.
Adjectives at work (a random collection of examples):
- I used to look after a well-tempered black cat.
- A more talkative and kinder man you’ll never meet.
- The long, cold winter might get you down.
- She brought back fat, juicy BC peaches.
- This is a kid-friendly pizza place.
- I used to work in a well-run, organized shop.
- Try to get a useful, cotton, cleaning cloth next time.
- Make sure you follow the post-surgery check list.