Adjective word order: sentence placement and lists

adjective word order

Adjectives describe nouns, and are usually placed either before a noun (as part of the noun phrase) or after a noun, pronoun or verb. The rules for this placement are quite simple, but when we use more than one adjective the word order is important, to sound more natural and to make the meaning clear. (Note this article is an earlier of version available more fully in Word Order in English Sentences.)

 

Placing an adjective before or after the noun

Adjectives are placed directly before a  noun to add detail to the noun. In a noun phrase, with additional words (such as determiners and adverbs), the adjective should be the last word before the noun. When they are removed from the sentence, the sentence should still make sense:

 

  • He had some strangely glowing bananas.

Some adjectives can only come before the noun, such as whole or entire.

  • They ate the whole cheese.

Adjectives are placed after a noun, pronoun or verb when they qualify a verb that complements the subject. Simply: when the verb describes or changes the noun, the adjective provides the detail (the what).

  • He is tall.
  • This text became complicated.

These adjectives completes the sentence, and cannot be left out.

Some adjectives can only come after the noun, such as asleep, awake, and alive.

  • They all celebrated, the donkey was alive!

not

  • They all celebrated the alive donkey.

Word order with more than one adjective

When you have more than one adjective, their word order is not always firmly structured, but there are loose rules you can follow.

General before specific:

  • The dark medieval castle. NOT The medieval dark castle.

The second sentence could confuse meaning as it sounds like the darkness is specific (for instance that it is either a particular medieval darkness, or that it is part of the name/label of the castle). This is easy to avoid with one general rule: adjectives should be put in order of how specific they are, starting general and becoming more specific.

Opinion before description:

  • A beautiful golden vase. NOT A golden beautiful vase.

Similar to above, opinion-based adjectives should come before fact-based adjectives, as describing adjectives should be placed closer to the word they describe. In the second sentence, it could sound as though the beauty is golden, not the vase.

More complex word order

Adjective word order can also be grouped into more specific groups, which follow this order:

1. Size 2. Shape 3. Colour 4. Origin 5. Material 6. Use Noun
Big long brown 20th century wooden serving spoons.

 

This is not a firm order though, and there are many exceptions. Commonly, Material and Origin are often reversed, to place Origin directly before Use. There’s a nice little exercise to test some of this ordering here.

 

Listing adjectives

When you list a large number of adjectives before a noun, they can be presented as a list, separated by commas. You do not normally need a conjunction (and) when the adjectives are before the noun, but you do need and when the list comes after the noun. Note: it is generally better English to use less describing words, to be clearer.

  • We have a small, square, beige car.
  • Our car is small, square and beige.

You can sometimes choose to use and for a list of adjectives before a noun to change the word order and put emphasis on the final adjective (particularly useful for opinion adjectives):

  • They entered a dark, dreary and frankly disgusting sewer.

Adjective order exercise

Put the adjectives in brackets into the sentences below in the correct places and order:

  1. I want a dog. (new, cute)
  2. Is Mark ? I need to talk to him. (awake)
  3. That circus is (crazy, loud, strange).
  4. The bank has an door. (old, impressive)
  5. This painting is my favourite. (19th Century, landscape)
  6. Carl asked for a coffee. (hot, tall, milky)
  7. It’s getting outside. (cold, wet)
  8. My car is for sale. (red, fast)
  9. I like the pearls. (white, round, Elizabethan)
  10. Their house was simply too big. (grotesque, modern, bulbous)

Suggested answers:

  1. I want a cute new dog.
  2. Is Mark awake? I need to talk to him.
  3. That circus is strange, crazy and loud.
  4. The bank has an impressive old door.
  5. This 19th Century landscape painting is my favourite.
  6. Carl asked for a hot, tall milky coffee.
  7. It’s getting cold and wet outside.
  8. My fast red car is for sale.
  9. I like the round white Elizabethan pearls.
  10. Their grotesque bulbous modern house was simply too big.

If you found this article useful and would like more information on how we put sentences together, do check out my full book, Word Order in English Sentences.

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