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Adjective Order and Punctuation

March 7, 2013

Teaching students to use big, long lists of adjectives…

No native English speaker would say “the red, big house” because we all know that “the big, red house” sounds better. Students, on the other hand, need to be taught the correct order of multiple adjectives because they can’t rely on what sounds right. Luckily, rules about adjective order do exist and can be followed easily to avoid awkward errors. And what about using commas with multiple adjectives? Read on for the solutions to all your adjective teaching woes!

I. Punctuation of Multiple Adjectives

If the adjectives are all being used to describe the noun (aka coordinate adjectives), commas should separate them. Using “and” is a good test to determine if the multiple adjectives you’re using should follow this rule. (For an example of when a comma should not be used, see #8, Purpose, below.)

Examples of Punctuation with Multiple Adjectives

  • She has long, dark hair. (She has long and dark hair; both long and dark are adjectives that describe the noun hair.)
  • I live in the big, red house down the street. (I live in the big and red house; both big and red describe the noun house.)
  • I admired the expensive, new, German cars at the car show. (I admired the expensive and new and German cars; expensive and new and German all describe the noun cars.)

Note

Using “and” is necessary when there is no noun that follows the adjectives: The cars were expensive, new, and German. Her hair is long and dark.

II. Order of Multiple Adjectives

The natural order for multiple adjectives is based on what type of adjectives are used. Adjectives should appear in this order:

# Type of Adjective Examples
1 Opinion

(what you think about something)

  • beautiful
  • expensive
  • easy
  • delicious
2 Size
  • big
  • small
3 Age
  • young
  • old
4 Shape
  • round
  • rectangular
5 Color
  • red
  • white
6 Origin

(where something came from)

  • European
  • Japanese
7 Material

(what something is made from)

  • metal
  • silk
8 Purpose

(what something is used for)

  • sleeping (as in sleeping bag)
  • English (as in English teacher)

Note

Adjectives of purpose are also included in this list, but please be careful about punctuation with these adjectives. Purpose adjectives are a bit different in that they end up specifying what the noun is rather than just describing it. For example, sleeping bag is now a specific type of bag, whereas red bag could be any type of bag that is red. Be careful about punctuation with purpose adjectives: You will NOT need a comma between another type of adjective and a purpose adjective. For example:

  • I have a red sleeping bag. (color, no comma, purpose)
  • I have a comfortable, red sleeping bag. (opinion, comma, color, no comma, purpose)

Examples of Order with Multiple Adjectives

  • My friend is a talented, young musician. (opinion, age)
  • That car is a beautiful, older, Italian model. (opinion, age, origin)
  • I bought a shiny, small, square, metal vase. (opinion, size, shape, material)
  • We browsed through the many antique, colorful, silk dresses in the boutique. (age, color, material)

Note

If the multiple adjectives are of the same type, then you can use any order you want. For example:

  • She has a funny, kind coworker. (opinion, opinion)
  • She has a kind, funny coworker. (opinion, opinion)

I hope that these confusing, stress-inducing rules are now clear in your mind so that you can easily teach them to your students! If anything is still unclear, please let me know in the comment section below. For a ready-made lesson that includes practice with adjective order, try this Adjectives lesson.

—Tanya

Sources

  • Chicago Manual of Style, 16th edition, sections 5.90 and 6.33.
  • University of Victoria English Language Centre, http://web2.uvcs.uvic.ca/elc/studyzone/410/grammar/adjord.htm.
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Comments (38)

Tara Benwell(Author)

We have an intelligent, young, Canadian editor on our team. Did I get that right?

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

You did! And what a great example, haha! ;)

Tara Benwell(Author)

Teachers: You will be able to review these adjective rules with your students in our upcoming Famous Things lesson plan on Skateboarding...coming in April!

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

Dana P.(Teacher)

Thank you so much Tanya for your interesting and useful posts!

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

You're very welcome!

Hyacinth W.(Teacher)

This is excellent!Thank you Tanya for your teaching materials.

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

You're welcome, Dawn! Thanks for your comment.

Guadalupe B.(Teacher)

Thanks a lot for clarifying my teaching, mostly on the punctuation! Here goes one:
ESL Library is an appealing, helpful, fun, and interesting website.
Tell me about punctuation on this one, I have my doubts on the comma.

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

Hi Guadalupe,

I like your example sentence! :)

Your punctuation is completely correct. The last comma before the 'and' is optional, but I prefer to include it myself.

Thanks for your comment,
Tanya

Damon Farris(Guest)

Hi;
Since this adjective order is new to me, I was a little confused with their order. I thought it was relative to the noun, but I guess it is relative to the first word in the sentence. i.e., left to right.

Thanks. The order is clear to me anyway. That is #8 is closest to the noun.

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

Hi Damon,

Yes, it depends on the type of adjective. I'm glad it's less confusing for you now.

The relationship between the adjective and noun is still important for the basic adjective sentence patterns in English: 1) Adj + N (She has a new car) and 2) Be + Adj (Her car is new). That doesn't affect multiple-word adjectives in pattern #1, but note that we use 'and' in pattern #2. (She has a shiny, new car. / Her car is shiny and new.)

Tanya

Diego Lozada(Guest)

Hello, I understood the topic, but one question came to my mind. What would be the order if for example there are two colours? Or two adjectives?

A ugly yellow red hat or A ugly red yello?

Thanks!

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

Hi Diego,

If there are two adjectives of the same type, you can choose the order you want. For example, you can say 'an ugly, expensive hat' OR 'an expensive, ugly hat'.

But with colours, it's a little different, because we usually use 'and' to join colours. So I would say 'an ugly, yellow and red hat' OR 'an ugly, red and yellow hat'.

If you want to use three colours, it would look like this: 'an ugly, red, white, and yellow hat' with the colours in any order you want.

Hope that helps!
Tanya

Tanya Trusler(Author)

Hi everyone,

I've thought of a good test for recognizing if you need a comma between adjectives or not (whether it's a purpose adjective or not--see #8 above). See if the sentence still makes sense if you switch the order of the adjectives. If it does, you need a comma/commas. If it doesn't, you can't use a comma/commas.

For example, switching 'He is a talkative, energetic student' to 'He is an energetic, talkative student' makes sense, so you need a comma in both cases.

But switching 'I have a red, sleeping bag' to 'I have a sleeping, red bag' does not make sense, so you CAN'T use a comma. The correct sentence is 'I have a red sleeping bag' with NO comma.

Hope that helps! :)

Reply to Comment

Klark James S. Asuncion(Guest)

What is: Ordering of adjecives- visual examples? I didn't know what is the meaning of that...

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

Hi Klark, I'm not quite sure what you're asking. Was this something you saw in the post?

Charles Waterman(Guest)

It seems like there's disagreement on the Internet about when commas are not needed between adjectives. I like a lot of what the author of this site says about adjectives from the same category and from different categories:

http://theeditorsblog.net/2014/04/08/keeping-adjectives-in-line/

If that writer is correct, (and my internal correcter thinks she is) then we only use commas between two adjectives of the same category from the 'royal' order of adjectives. What do you think?

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

Thanks for sharing that great post. I think that cumulative vs. non-cumulative is often up for debate, which is why using commas between different categories from the 'royal' order of adjectives is often up to the speaker! For example:

  • a long velvet drape (= correct. Is the velvet drape long? Yes, so this cumulative adjective example doesn't need a comma.)
  • a long, velvet drape (= also correct. Is the drape long and velvet? Yes, so this non-cumulative adjective example needs a comma.)

I think it often depends how you look at it. I'd teach the basic rules to low-level learners, but by all means, get into the discussion and debate of comma vs. no comma with higher-level learners! These things are what makes English difficult but fascinating. :)

It's also worth noting that the trend these days is moving away from 'unnecessary' comma usage, so the example without a comma is probably the more popular choice these days.

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