Native English speakers don’t spend time thinking about why it’s “my old, brown, leather walking boots”, not “my walking, old, leather brown boots”. You just learn what sounds right and follow the rules without even knowing them. I only came across the rules during my teacher training!
However, if you’re learning English, it makes sense to have a look at these rules about adjectives because they will help you to put your words in the right order.
I also talked about this topic in episode 102 of my podcast.
Firstly, an adjective is a word that is used to describe something. Words such as big, hungry, tired, green, silver, and untidy.
The order of adjectives
Usually there are at most two or three adjectives before nouns and they are generally put in this order:
- Quantity – how many
- Opinion – subjective things like beautiful, friendly, argumentative
- Size – big small tall
- Shape – square, round
- Age – old/young or old/new
- colour – brown, pink, red, dark blue
- origin (for things) or nationality (for people) – English, Australian
- material – silver, wooden
- purpose – swimming costume, rowing machine, coffee cup
Sometimes age and colour are the other way round – not all of the lists on how to do this agree!
Sometimes the adjective has to stay with the noun such as “the golden retriever”. You can’t say (my golden, tired, old retriever”. It’s a golden retriever, or a curly-coat retriever, or a flat-coat retriever, and you can’t split these words up and put other adjectives in the gap.
So this is why we don’t talk about brown, walking, leather, old boots! It has to be my old (age) brown (colour) – leather (material) – walking + boots – these have to stay together like golden retriever.
I found a small, , round wooden box.
I want to buy those beautiful, antique silver earrings.
Is it ok to use the adjective?
Some adjectives that are used to give your opinion can be used for anything. Anything can be wonderful, horrible, excellent, awful or amazing! However, some can only be used for certain things. Your food can be delicious, but your lesson can’t. The neighbour’s dog can be friendly, but the weather and your new jacket can’t – because they’re not alive.
Of course there will always be exceptions. We’ve already learned that sometimes age and colour are in the opposite order. Someone may want to emphasise a particular adjective, and they may choose to put it earlier in the sentence. Sometimes this sounds ok, but other times it just sounds out of place, so I’d advise you to be careful about that.
Sometimes there are commonly known phrases such as “the big bad wolf”. If we follow the rules, it should be the bad (opinion) big (size) wolf, but this character appears in so many old stories that “big bad wolf” just rolls off the tongue.
Don’t overdo it
Having too many adjectives makes the sentence sound odd. Usually 2 or 3 are enough.
She was an intelligent, attractive, tall, thin, young, blond, English woman! It might be true, but who wants to read so many adjectives in a row?
After a verb
Some adjectives can only be used after a verb, usually the verb to be.
I am well, afraid, asleep etc.
But you can’t say I found an asleep dog/an afraid dog or a well dog (it has to be a sleeping dog, a frightened dog or a healthy dog).
Commas and the word “and”
If the adjective comes before the noun, you use commas but no “and”. His shiny, expensive, new, red car.
Only use “and” if the adjectives belong together – wet and windy weather, black and white cat, salt and vinegar crisps.
I grew up in a quiet, little village.
Use “and” if the adjectives follow a verb (often the verb to be):
Now the village is noisy and overcrowded.
More from English with Kirsty
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