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Adjective Order in English – Video Lesson

by Oli Redman on 1 February, 2016 , No comments

If you’re drinking some coffee, which is strong, and black, and Italian, what should you say? “I’m drinking strong Italian black coffee?” “I’m drinking black strong Italian coffee?” Something else? When you use more than one adjective with a noun in English, the adjectives must go in a specific order. In this lesson, you can learn about adjective order in English, and how to use several adjectives with a noun correctly.

1. Adjectives which express opinions go before adjectives which express facts.

For example, beautiful expresses an opinion. Old expresses a fact.

So we say a beautiful old house, not an old beautiful house.

2. Adjectives which express something general go before adjectives which express something specific.

For example, small has a more general meaning. Many things can be small. in many different ways. Canadian is more specific, because something can only be Canadian if it is actually from Canada.

So we say a small Canadian company, not a Canadian small company.

Let’s go back to the example I was having so many problems with. You want to use the words coffee, Italian, strong and black together. They can go in many different orders. Which is correct?

  • Strong Italian black coffee
  • Strong black Italian coffee
  • Black strong Italian coffee
  • Black Italian strong coffee
  • Italian black strong coffee
  • Italian strong black coffee

Adjective Order in English - coffee image

Is there only one possibility, or can we choose what word order we use? Which word order sounds better to you?

There is only one correct possibility, and it’s the second one: Strong black Italian coffee.

Do you know why this is the right answer?

When we use several adjectives before a noun, the adjectives have to go in a particular order.

Of course, your meaning will still be clear if you put the adjectives in the wrong order. It’s not a big mistake; however, it is very noticeable when someone makes this mistake.

If you want your English to sound natural, you need to use adjectives in the right order.

Let’s start with a simple rule which you can use:

1. Rule One: Opinions Go First, Facts Go Second

The full rules for adjective order, which you’ll see in a minute, are complicated, and not very practical to use. However, there’s a simple rule which is very helpful:

  • Adjectives which describe an opinion go before adjectives which describe a fact.

For example, adjectives like nice, beautiful, useful or delicious describe opinions. Just because you describe something as delicious, it doesn’t mean that everyone will agree with you.

Adjectives like big, new, green or silk describe facts. Take a few seconds and try to think of some other adjectives which describe opinions and facts.

Now, let’s see our rule in action:

  • They live in a beautiful old house on the edge of the city.
  • We had some delicious Korean food with some friends.
  • Why are you wearing those ugly purple trousers?
  • She has an interesting new perspective on the economic situation.

In all of these sentences, we use two adjectives before a noun, and you can see that the adjective of opinion goes first, and the adjective of fact goes second.

2. Rule Two: General Ideas Go Before Specific Ideas

There’s another simple rule which works well if you don’t know the correct word order:

  • Adjectives which have a general meaning go before adjectives which have a specific meaning.

For example, if you say a long, wooden table, the adjective long is more general. Many things can be long, in many different ways. Something can be physically long, a story can be long, you can have a long day, and so on.

Wooden is more specific. Generally, something can only be wooden if it is actually made of wood. So, we say a long, wooden table, not a wooden, long table.

Can you think of other adjectives which have a general meaning?

Adjectives like old, hot or small all have a general meaning, because they can be used with different meanings, to describe many different things.

On the other hand, adjectives like green, French or striped are more specific. If something is green, that’s quite a specific idea.

Let’s see some examples of this:

  • He works for a small Canadian company.
  • I love these old black-and-white films.
  • We bought a new leather sofa for the living room.
  • I need to buy a really warm woolly hat.

Again, we use two adjectives with each noun. In each case, the adjective with a more general meaning goes first, and the adjective with a more specific meaning goes second.

3. The Full Rule for Adjective Order

We said before that the full rule for adjective order is quite complicated. Are you ready?

  • Opinion—> Size—> Other qualities—>Age—>Colour/Pattern—>Nationality—>Material

Got that? So we could say, for example:

  • She bought a beautiful long warm new black-and-white striped Italian silk scarf.
OpinionSizeOther qualitiesAgeColourPatternNationalityMaterial
beautifullongwarmnewblack-and-whitestripedItaliansilk

Do you need to know this rule? Not really—here’s why:

  • First of all, this rule is too complicated to use if you’re speaking.
  • We rarely use more than two or three adjectives with one noun.
  • Native speakers don’t know this rule, nor do they always follow it.

This does not mean that adjective order doesn’t matter—it does. As we said before, if you say She has black straight short hair it sounds strange and wrong, and native speakers will hear and notice mistakes like this.

4. Advice to Use When You Speak

  • 1. Trust your instinct. If it sounds right, it probably is.
  • 2. Remember the simple rules: opinion before fact; general before specific.

Adjective Order Quiz

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Oli RedmanAdjective Order in English – Video Lesson