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.
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 of adjectives
Let’s get the naming right. This not-really-secret secret is properly known as the royal order of adjectives.
Things native English speakers know, but don't know we know: pic.twitter.com/Ex0Ui9oBSL
— Matthew Anderson (@MattAndersonNYT) 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)
🤓 Nerdy note
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. 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. Remember: just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.
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:
Remember this the next time you see a lovely small oblong old blue French iron passenger car 🚙
But hang on. There’s more.
The Big Bad Wolf 🐺
Here’s another rule we know but don’t know we know – it’s called ablaut reduplication.
It means that similar groups of words are ordered based on their vowels. For this rule, the vowel order is I, A, O.
These examples should help:
- ping pong (not pong ping)
- tick tock (not tock tick)
- mish mash (not mash mish)
- ding dang dong (the bells!)
This rule supersedes the royal order of adjectives, which is why Big Bad Wolf is correct.
If it weren’t for ablaut reduplication, we’d write Bad Big Wolf. And that sounds terrible.
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Who wrote this?
John Espirian – the relentlessly helpful technical copywriter
I write B2B web content, blogs, user guides and case studies – all aimed at explaining how your products, services and processes work. I also offer LinkedIn profile critiquing and rewriting.
I work from home in Newport, South Wales and support the (formerly) mighty Liverpool FC 🔴⚽️