It’s funny how native speakers of English have that sense of what sounds right and what doesn’t. Even though we can’t always explain why, we often know when there’s something wrong with the way a piece of text is written.
Our ability to detect this wrongness is even more acute when we read text out loud (see tip 5 of my top 10 proofreading tips).
Here’s an example. Read these sentences out loud:
- I own a blue small car.
- I own a small blue car.
The first sentence sounds wrong. The second one makes more sense. Why is that? After all, the car is small and blue. It’s also blue and small. These are just adjectives – describing words – that tell us the properties of the car.
So, why should one sound right and the other sound wrong?
It’s because there’s a secret order in which adjectives must appear. I say ‘secret’ but it’s not really a secret. It’s just that most people who were at school any time in the 1970s and onwards were probably never taught this.
The secret order
Let’s get the naming right. This not-really-secret secret is properly known as the royal order of adjectives.
Here’s an interesting tweet on the subject:
Things native English speakers know, but don't know we know: pic.twitter.com/Ex0Ui9oBSL
— Matthew Anderson (@MattAndersonBBC) September 3, 2016
Here is the royal order of adjectives in the order they should be used when describing something:
- Opinion e.g. lovely
- Size e.g. small
- Shape e.g. oblong
- Age e.g. old
- Colour e.g. blue
- Origin e.g. French
- Material e.g. iron
- Qualifier e.g. passenger car (usually forms part of the noun)
The classic version of the royal order puts size and shape together. I like that version so that’s what I’m using here.
The order given in the tweet image is slightly different. If you spotted the difference, you’re my kind of person!
I hope you can now see why my earlier example was correct as a small blue car rather than as a blue small car. It’s because size has to come before colour.
Stick with the order above and you can create great long strings of adjectives to describe your nouns. (Your readers won’t thank you, of course, but it can be done.)
Don’t worry if you’ve never heard of this order before. Most people haven’t, but native speakers instinctively know the right order to use. Here’s a comment from one of my editorial colleagues:
So, now you know. I hope you remember this the next time you see a lovely small oblong old blue French iron passenger car.
Over to you
Do you struggle with any aspects of writing? Let me know and I’ll cover it in a future post. Just pop a comment below or catch up with me on Twitter. I’d love to hear from you.
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