Module 6, Modifiers: Adjectives and Adverbs, Lesson 4:

Order of Adjectives


In sentences, adjectives are usually found before the nouns they modify, but they may also come after the noun if separated by commas, or they may come after a linking verb.

Adjectives before the noun:

The fluffy white clouds floated across the sky.

Adjectives after the noun:

Adjectives can be moved to immediately after the noun if commas are placed around them. This can be very effective.

The clouds, white and fluffy, floated across the sky.

Adjectives after the verb:

Subject complements that are adjectives are predicate adjectives. Predicate adjectives come after a linking verb.

The clouds were fluffy and white.

In English syntax, adjectives belong in a certain order:

Determiners Quantifiers Opinions Facts
Physical Traits
articles possessives demonstratives numbers amounts sequence opinions
size length / shape condition age color pattern origin material purpose / kind noun as adjective
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17
The two comfortable old blue recliner chairs
My many faithful, friendly big black spotted Labrador retrievers
Most people who are native English speakers recognize when adjectives are out of order. Students learning English must study the sequence.
Generally two or three adjectives after the determiner or noun marker are enough. Too many adjectives, like the examples above, sound strange.

Coordinate vs. Cumulative

Definition: Coordinate adjectives modify nouns in the same way. They describe the same feature. They are often called "equal adjectives." Most coordinate adjectives are adjectives of opinion or evaluation. We don't generally use more than one adjective from any of the other categories together because they sound redundant.

The elegant, wealthy lady looks like a model.

Definition: Cumulative adjectives build upon each other and must be in a certain order. They are equally important and give different types of information

The big old black bull followed the young Brahma cow.
  • Traditional explanation: The way to check is to put and between the adjectives or see if they can be switched around. If and can be added, or they can be switched and still sound natural, add a comma.

    The elegant and wealthy lady looks like a model. (sounds fine)
    The wealthy, elegant lady looks like a model. (sounds fine)

    but not:

    The big and old and black bull followed the young and Brahma cow. (doesn't work)
    The black old big bull followed the Brahma young cow. (doesn't work)

  • Perhaps an easier explanation: If the two adjectives have the same number in the chart above, they need a comma.
    The elegant(#7), wealthy(#7) lady looks like a model. (coordinate adjectives)
    The big(#8) old(#11) black(#12) bull followed the young(#11) Brahma(#14) cow. (cumulative adjectives)
  • Paired meanings: Sometimes the cumulative adjective works with the noun to create a paired meaning almost like a compound noun. They don't take commas.
    the cute [little boy] = a little boy who is cute
    a frosted [chocolate cake] = a chocolate cake that is frosted
    a delicious {frosted [chocolate cake]} = a frosted chocolate cake that is delicious
  • Clarity: Sometimes a comma is inserted to clarify that two adjectives modify an adjective-noun combination instead of all the adjectives modifying the single noun.
    the cunning, sneaky red foxes (red foxes are cunning and sneaky)
    the cunning sneaky red foxes (the sneaky red foxes are cunning)

Practice What You've Learned

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Decide whether the underlined adjectives are coordinate or cumulative. Commas have intentionally been left out.
Those beautiful blue balloons are for my birthday.
coordinate / cumulative
Two tall African ostriches live in the yard next door.
coordinate / cumulative
That fresh flowery detergent makes my laundry smell nice.
coordinate / cumulative
The little old lady couldn't carry all her groceries, so I helped.
coordinate / cumulative
My new smart phone has lots of apps.
coordinate / cumulative
Those twisted gnarly olive trees are almost a thousand years old.
coordinate / cumulative
That slippery dangerous trail is one place I won't go.
coordinate / cumulative
That smiling painted ceramic cat is from Santa Fe.
coordinate / cumulative
The annoying rattling sound coming from your engine is a bad sign.
coordinate / cumulative
Chess is one of the oldest strategy games.
coordinate / cumulative