Grammar Moment: Adjective order
This post is actually in response to a comment on another blog – I had formulated a comment responding to that comment, but then due to some glitch in cyberspace, the comment didn’t go through and that blog ceased responding. So, Jesse, here’s an answer to the question that you posed on Muddled Ramblings a few weeks back, about why adjectives have to come in a certain order.
First, let’s take a look at this sentence:
Dino drives a pickup red Ford big truck.
Now, if you have grown up speaking English, or you have been speaking it for a long time, you know that this sentence doesn’t sound right. It’s all mixed up. It should be
Dino drives a big red Ford pickup truck.
So why is the second sentence correct, but the first one not? The answer is that the adjectives in this sentence don’t have equal value – that is, some of the adjectives are more closely related to the noun than others. The ones that are most closely related to the noun are the ones that come closest to it in the sentence.
When you’re dealing with nouns of unequal value, if you’re fluent in English, you probably have a pretty good handle on the order they should follow. If you’re still working on mastering the finer points of the language, a good grammar book will give you a list of what sorts of adjectives come before what other sorts. The list won’t be exactly the same from one book to another, but they will all have the same basic idea. The book I currently have before me, Keys for Writers, 4th Edition, by Ann Raimes, gives this list: (1) size, (2) shape, (3) age, (4) color, (5) geographical origin, (6) architectural style or religion, (7) material, (8) noun used as adjective.
So in the example above, big is size, red is color, Ford is, for practical purposes, geographical origin (some grammar books give brand names their own category), and pickup is an architectural style.
One other note about stringing together adjectives of unequal value – because their order and meaning separate them from each other, you don’t put commas between them.
Now, sometimes you get adjectives that are of equal value:
You should eat a healthful, well-balanced diet.
Since these adjectives are of equal value, you can swap them, and the sentence will still make sense:
You should eat a well-balanced, healthful diet.
Notice that when adjectives are of equal value, you need to separate them with commas, especially if you have a lot of adjectives. The reader might get confused without that little bit of punctuation to show that the adjectives are separate from each other.
On occasion, you might run into a situation in which the order of adjectives can be changed, but changing the order changes the meaning. Consider these two sentences:
Look at that cute little blonde-haired girl!
Look at that cute blonde-haired little girl!
Here, both sentences make sense. But changing the order of the words changes the meaning of the sentence. In the first sentence, little is more distant from girl; this is something a couple of guys in a singles bar might say – cute means she’s physically attractive in a slightly immature way, little means she’s petite in stature and build, and blonde-haired is her most important attribute. In fact, she may not really be a girl at all, but could be 30 or even a well-kept 40—and some women keep their girlish looks beyond even that.
In the second sentence, little is more closely related to girl, and therefore it colors the rest of the sentence. The implication is that this girl is at most in lower elementary grades, and quite likely younger. You would expect the second sentence to be uttered by a doting grandparent. If the guys in the singles bar said it, they’d be contemplating acts that would land them in jail.