Order of adjectives

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Order of adjectives

Post by Phil White » Thu Oct 24, 2013 2:46 pm

While I was out chasing sticks this morning, I was pondering (as one does) the order of adjectives in English.

Clearly, as native speakers, we are intuitively aware of the normal order if we place multiple adjectives before a noun. (The big, black dog/*The black, big dog).

Grammarians, and, in particular, ELT teachers, have already identified "rules" that govern the usual order of adjectives. Hierarchies such as the following are usually proposed:
  1. General opinion
  2. Specific opinion
  3. Size
  4. Shape
  5. Age
  6. Colour
  7. Nationality/Origin
  8. Material
This would result in something like:
"A nice, welcoming, big, square, 18th-century, white, English, thatched cottage."

While that may be acceptable, I strongly suspect that a native speaker would render the last part of that as
"a white, 18th-century, English, thatched cottage"

There are also other cases where the "rules" (which, in fairness, are only ever stated as tendencies or guidelines) break down.
  • The big, fat dog (size precedes shape)
  • *The fat, big dog (this is more than merely infelicitous)
  • The little, thin dog (size precedes shape)
  • The thin, little dog (breaches the guidelines, but is possibly more felicitous than the phrase above)
While the guideline generally holds for the usual number of adjectives (two is common, three is uncommon, four or more is rare or poetic), I can find no explanation why "the thin, little dog" should be acceptable, while "the fat, big dog" should not.

Ideas, anyone?
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Re: Order of adjectives

Post by Phil White » Thu Oct 24, 2013 2:59 pm

Indeed, how about
  • The well-behaved, little, black dog
  • ?The little, black, well-behaved dog
  • ?The obsessive-compulsive, little, black dog
  • The little, black, obsessive-compulsive dog
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Re: Order of adjectives

Post by Erik_Kowal » Fri Oct 25, 2013 7:22 am

One must bear in mind that native speakers will also pay attention to the way their sentences sound when they put them together -- and not just poets or speech-writers will do this, but ordinary people talking about ordinary things. Besides the hierarchy of informational content you cited (which, to be fair, seems accurate as far as it goes), the sonic characteristics embedded in a string of adjectives are therefore also relevant. The underlying reasons may be aesthetic, rhetorical, or both.

Among the relevant sonic characteristics are: the length of the vowels, the number of syllables, the similarity of the vowel sounds and the ease of pronunciation of the consonantal combinations.

Specifically, I hypothesize that (especially with certain common adjectival combinations), adjectives with shorter vowels tend to precede those with longer vowels; adjectives with fewer syllables tend to precede those with more syllables; and adjectives that are easy to pronounce tend to precede those with combinations of sounds that are harder to say. There is also a tendency for adjectives that start with the same sound to be grouped together, and similarly with adjectives that contain identical vowel sounds. I suspect that combinations of adjectives that have similar sounds also form collocations more readily than those whose sounds are less similar.

For instance, I notice that in both the adjectives of 'thin little dog', the vowel is a short I sound, and that the one-syllable adjective precedes the two-syllable adjective.

Taking your example of 'the big fat dog' as another partial test of my hypothesis, the A in fat is longer than the I in thin, and hence fat follows big.

Making the vowel sound the same, 'the big fit dog' and 'the fit big dog' seem about equally likely to occur.

There is an additional wrinkle to the question of adjectival order, namely the fact that a lengthy procession of adjectives is often broken up with 'and'; this can also help to generate a different sequence to that prescribed or predicted by the informational content-based hierarchy. This may be because the additional syllable smooths out or balances an otherwise staccato or irregular rhythm, or because it inserts a rhetorically useful linking syllable which can be either accented or unaccented, depending on the adjacent words.

If, for instance, we take your description of the cottage as a starting point and introduce an 'and' or two, we might end up with the following, still somewhat natural-sounding result:

"A {nice, white [note the identical vowel sounds]}, {big and welcoming [one shared vowel; 'and' smooths out an otherwise staccato rhythm]}, {square and thatched [an adjective with easily-pronounced sounds is followed by one containing a less easily pronounced combination of two consonantal clusters; the 'and' makes the combination of syllables less staccato]} {18th-century English cottage [here there is a euphonious sequence of four trochees]}."

I say 'somewhat natural-sounding result', because, as Mark Twain might have put it, any object that is preceded by eight adjectives can legitimately be considered to be over-described.

Anyway, if we apply the numbering scheme contained in your listing of adjectival hierarchy, instead of

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8

we now have

1 6 3 2 4 8 5 7

There are sure to be other sonic considerations that can affect adjectival order -- my discussion can only present a partial outline of what is bound to be a much more complex set of sonic factors -- and some or all of my individual assertions will require qualification or even correction; but I have at least shown that the order of a string of adjectives can be influenced by the interactions of the adjectives' sounds and rhythms. Disregarding these additional factors, and using the type of information conveyed by a set of adjectives as the only criterion for the sequence in which they will, or ought to, describe someone or something, is far too prescriptive and inflexible.

Re: Order of adjectives

Post by Phil White » Fri Oct 25, 2013 2:45 pm

Hmmm. While accepting that speakers will generally tend to avoid ugliness and clumsiness (while not explicitly striving for beauty), and also accepting the considerations of prosody, discourse and even pragmatics will probably influence our choice both of the actual words we select and the order in which we place them, I find myself disagreeing with virtually every example you give.

Vowel length
Taking your example of 'the big fat dog' as another partial test of my hypothesis, the A in fat is longer than the I in thin, and hence fat follows big.
No, both the vowels are short. One is open and the other close, but they are both short. The following examples give a full matrix of potential combinations.
  • The big, thin dog
  • *The thin, big dog
  • The large, thin dog
  • *The thin, large dog
  • The big, sleek dog
  • *The sleek, big dog
  • The large, sleek dog
  • *The sleek, large dog
In all cases, irrespective of the combinations of vowel lengths (short-short, long-long, long-short, short-long), the variant in which the size precedes the shape is invariably more felicitous. There may, of course, be conceivable discourse situations in which the order is reversed (I see a bunch of big dogs and a bunch of small dogs and I wish to identify the sleek one from the bunch of big dogs -> The sleek, big dog), but this is a straightforward case of a discourse situation overriding a grammatical convention (which happens all the time).

Syllable count
adjectives with fewer syllables tend to precede those with more syllables
I can't see this either. Another matrix:
  • The big, white house
  • *The white, big house
  • The big, yellow house
  • *The yellow, big house
  • The little, yellow house
  • *The yellow, little house
  • The little, white house
  • *The white, little house
Again, subject to the provisos above, the variant in which size precedes color is more felicitous in all cases.

'the big fit dog' and 'the fit big dog'
This one raises an issue which has been going through my mind since I posted. There are many adjectives and adjectival expressions that do not fit neatly into any of the categories in the position continuum. They seem to describe an observable quality and fall in towards the end of the continuum (my OCD dog in my second post probably falls into this category). I think they come immediately before, at the same position as or immediately after "Material".

"Fit" in your example may well fall into this category. A dog can be observably fit (it is not just my opinion), i.e. it is rippling with muscles and fast across the ground. In this, normal, case, "the big, fit dog" complies with the given position continuum. It is also, however, possible that I am making a judgment about the dog, for instance that for a big, slightly overweight dog, this one appears to be fit. This reading of "fit" as an opinion would lead to the word order "the fit, big dog". It is also possible to read the expression is an example of conceptual grouping (the fit [big dog]). More of that below.

Conceptual grouping
My somewhat overqualified cottage was not intended as a usable example, but rather to exemplify the order in which adjectives usually appear. As I said, more than three adjectives is rather rare.

What you have done with the phrase by inserting the word "and" and by other reordering is to impose a number of levels of conceptual grouping on the phrase. Your bracketing indicates that you were intuitively aware of this.

I shall only take a couple of examples to indicate what I mean by that.

The two pairings "nice, white" and "big and welcoming" are each composite concepts or, as I have dubbed to them, conceptual groups,, and each represents an opinion,, which puts them at the head of the qualification chain.

In detail, If you place "nice, white" at the head of the qualification chain, it indicates to me that the word "nice" relates not to the cottage, but to the whiteness thereof. Either you are saying that the cottage is nice because it is white or you are saying that the white is a particularly nice white rather than the abominable dirty white of comparable cottages. Either way, "nice, white" is a single conceptual group rather than to isolated adjectives qualifying "cottage".

Much the same argument applies to "big and welcoming". You are explicitly tying the two concepts together into a single opinion, namely that you find large, expansive houses more welcoming than small, claustrophobic ones.

I actually find it a little difficult to place the word "thatched" in any position other than immediately preceding the word "cottage", partly because of the strength of the collocation "thatched cottage". If the two explanations above and this intuitive feeling are correct, we still have the order 1,2,5,6,7,8 (with the two conceptual groupings as opinions at the front).

None of that, of course, is to say that any native speaker, were they to utter the monstrosity that I constructed, would actually utter it in the sequence that I gave, and, of course, your point about the use of "and" is well taken, although I suggest that it does indicate a degree of semantic grouping.

To return to the example I gave in the second post:
  • The well-behaved, little, black dog
  • ?The little, black, well-behaved dog
  • ?The obsessive-compulsive, little, black dog
  • The little, black, obsessive-compulsive dog
I feel that this could be adequately explained by the modification to the hierarchy that I mentioned above, namely that an "observable quality" needs to be incorporated towards the end of the continuum. "Well-behaved" is undoubtedly an opinion. "Obsessive-compulsive" is an observable quality (or, indeed, a medical diagnosis). This would then explain the pattern shown above.

If my memory serves me correctly, Quirk et al. also identified further rules based on the syntactic categories of the adjectives that also govern their position, i.e. that participles precede nominals (nouns), which in turn precede denominals. Thus, "a considered (participle), ethical (denominal) judgement" or "a turned (participle), rosewood (nominal) bowl" or "the Washington (nominal), political (denominal) shenanigans". I cannot, however, remember how, or indeed whether, they made any attempt to tie this in with the functional hierarchy described above. Perhaps somebody could help me out by looking in Quirk for me.

And none of this actually explains the example in my original post: "the thin, little dog/*the little, thin dog", although I am coming to the conclusion that "little dog" is a close collocation in a way that "big dog" is not.

Indeed, my lengthy exegesis above contains a couple of adjective sequences that made me raise my eyebrows:
"large, expansive houses"
"small, claustrophobic [houses]"
In particular, "claustrophobic" appears to me to express an opinion, although both "expansive" and "claustrophobic" could be defined in terms of the "observable quality" I proposed above. It could also be that Quirk's "denominal" rule has taken precedence over the hierarchy or (I rather grudgingly have to admit) that Erik may have a point about the number of syllables.

This extract from Introduction to English Syntax by Rolf Kreyer gives what appears to be a plausible synthesis of formal and functional considerations. Unfortunately, some of the content of the tables in the Google book is missing.
Last edited by Phil White on Fri Oct 25, 2013 4:52 pm, edited 2 times in total.
Reason: Added link in final paragraph
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Re: Order of adjectives

Post by Edwin F Ashworth » Sat Oct 26, 2013 10:48 am

Phil White wrote: looking in Quirk
I just happen to know someone with a copy.

However, I'd better put this first:

'There are many adjectives and adjectival expressions that do not fit neatly into any of the categories in the position continuum [as given above]. They seem to describe an observable quality and fall in towards the end of the continuum (my OCD dog in my second post probably falls into this category). I think they come immediately before, at the same position as or immediately after "Material". '

I'd say there are other categories the 8-class model shown doesn't address -- offhand, weight, loudness and temperature are observable qualities, 'measurable' in the sense of not just being regardable as opinion-based. These come, I'd say, between 2 and 3 as a rule. An attempt at a full-scale classification would take some time. Perhaps over November.

Quirk et al (al sure gets around) lump rather more in the first analysis, suggesting four zones into which prenominal adjectives (and attributive nouns) can be considered to occur:

(A) Precentral: [mainly?] peripheral nongradable adjectives, especially
(i) emphasisers (definite, plain ...)
(ii) amplifiers (entire, total ...)
(iii) downtoners (slight ...)

(B) Central: [mainly?] central, gradable adjectives (1, 2, 2.6, 2.7, 2.8, 3, 4, 5)

(C) Postcentral: [mainly] [?] participles and (6) colour adjectives ('with variable order')
*eg 'thinning grey' hair but 'dark frowning' brows

(D) Prehead: 'This zone includes the "least adjectival and most nominal" premodifiers':
(i) adjectives deriving from proper nouns denoting (7) nationality, provenance, style (eg Gothic)
(ii) other adjectives with a morphological or semantic relation to nouns [domain, (8) composition ... eg
economic, rural, nuclear, lead, woollen] [OCD ?]
(iii) [attributive] nouns . . . . . [I've cross-referenced using ordinary brackets]

As can be seen, there is a largely logical structure, but based on complex rules ('peripheral adjectives'; 'adjectives with a morphological or semantic relation to nouns') and with idiosyncratic exceptions (*). I came up with 'A fit fat dog' ('is a rarity if not a contradiction in terms.') (that's a zeugma) (but it doesn't sound quite as bad as 'A fat fit dog....)

I'm sure aesthetic, rhetorical, and perhaps other mysterious collocational factors mess up any attempts at a simple analysis.

Re: Order of adjectives

Post by Edwin F Ashworth » Sat Oct 26, 2013 11:20 am

I hope Lenka has a pleasant November.

The analysis she has found, and the discussions, are very relevant. If (as expected) they frustratingly contain caveats such as

'descriptive adjectives which do not fall into any of the other categories usually follow adjectives indicating ...',

'the order of adjectives indicating temperature, humidity, age and shape is not as predictable as the order of other attributive adjectives', and

'I pulled out my Bedford Handbook (the standard in most American classrooms) and I found the order "size, shape, age". However, it also says, "This list is just a general guide; don't be surprised when you encounter exceptions." '

Of course, we haven't yet mentioned comma usage (perhaps to distance non-too-closely corresponding descriptors: a cold, angry bear / a big fat Labrador) and absurd juxtapositions (seven clever fat wet students).

Re: Order of adjectives

Post by Phil White » Sat Oct 26, 2013 3:05 pm

Very slowly, I am beginning to get a handle on all this.

Despite my general admiration for Quirk et al., I think they are possibly barking up the wrong tree by introducing formal aspects, and in particular by mixing formal aspects with functional aspects. It seems to me that there are several things going on simultaneously, for instance a very important continuum of "gradability", a second continuum of defining power, a further continuum from concrete to abstract and so on. The positioning of things like participles, nominals and denominals may well not be the direct result of their formal attributes, but instead of the positions on one or more of these continua that their form forces them to adopt. Thus, we see nominals and denominals close to the head noun not because they are nominal or denominal, but because, by their nature, they are, for instance, towards the non-gradable end of the gradable continuum. (There is no degree of cardboardiness in a cardboard box).

If a mechanism such as multiple continua is indeed in place, it is undoubtedly not the only mechanism. Collocative strength certainly plays a role, as does emphasis (although in the latter case a native speaker will always be aware of the deliberate reversal of normal order to achieve emphasis - the normal order is itself unaffected).
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Re: Order of adjectives

Post by Phil White » Sun Oct 27, 2013 11:17 pm

As I say, it has taken me a very long time to get my head round this one.

The distinction made in Quirk and others (as opposed to Quirk et al.) between pre-central, central, post-central and pre-head seemed rather arbitrary to me. Gradually it began to dawn on me that many of the items in the pre-head category were items which, when combined with a particular head had the potential to result in a distinct entry in a dictionary, for instance (tea + caddy, mud + hut, ...). This would seem to be particularly true when the pre-modifier is nominal. Various sources indicate that items which immediately or closely precede the head identify crucial qualities such as domain, material, style, purpose, and so on.

There is broad agreement that, among "normal" (central) adjectives, there is an identifiable sequence.

Many of the simpler models ignore much of the material in the pre-head category, but the material is largely unproblematic.

The category post-central caused me considerable problems, but I now think there is a good argument for this group, and I think I can see cognitive motivations for the four groups. However, I find the nomenclature misleading and will introduce new names. For the sake of the logical argument I shall be pursuing, I shall also describe the groups in reverse linear order, i.e. right to left, away from the head).

Starting from the back, with no attempt to organize the items within each of the groups, we have the following:
  1. Isolating (pre-head)
    The items in this group strongly define (rather than merely describe) the head. They isolate a particular subcategory of the head. The resulting concept is very liable to be distinctly identifiable within the semantic space with which we structure our experience. Thus, "a tea caddy" forms a distinct category of objects in our mind in a way that "a hot day" does not conjure up a category encompassing all days that are hot. The resulting composite items often have high collocative strength, and, if they do, they are likely to appear as separate headwords in a dictionary, for instance.
    This is not to say, however, that every instance of ahead pre-modified in this way will form a previously known conceptual category, but it does instantiate a particular type of the head. Although pre-modification of this type is frequently achieved with nominals and denominals (social life, political life, coal miner, tea clipper, Queen Anne chair, ...), other word types are also possible, particularly participles (rocking chair, reading light,…).
  2. Defining (post-central)
    Pre-modifiers in this group also serve to define (rather than describe) the head, but they do not have the isolating quality of the pre-head group. Most of the items in this group are participles, but again, it is their function rather than their form that determines membership in the group.

    Unlike the items in the isolating group, these items do not conjure up or create a distinct type of the head ("a leaning tower" does not conjure up a category of all leaning towers, neither is the item "leaning tower" likely to appear as a headword in a dictionary). It seems to me that the items in this category are also likely to be more absolute than items in the central category. Thus, "burnt toast" is more absolute than "hot toast", with "hot" belonging to the descriptive/judgmental category and "burnt" belonging to the defining category. It is not that we cannot conceive of different degrees of "leaningness" of a tower, or "burntness" of toast, but rather that we are more interested in the fact that the tower is leaning or the toast is burnt. Hence my opening contention for this category that the items "serve to define rather than describe". This approach also accounts for the membership of colors in this group. We are interested primarily in the fact that the dog is brown, and not in the degree of brownness of the dog when we refer to “the brown dog”.

    Items in this group have an objectively definitive quality about them. They not only refer to quantifiable qualities, but expressly identify the quantity. Thus, “18th-century” is an objective, definitive point (range) within the quality “age”. This is an important aspect distinguishing items in this category from items in the “descriptive” category below.
  3. Descriptive (central)
    The items in this group serve to describe, rather than define or isolate, the head. Typically, but not exclusively, items in this group are adjectives rather than other parts of speech acting as adjectives, and they also regularly represent a point on a continuum (often top or bottom) of the quality they identify. Thus, we find things like "hot" and "cold" (as two points on a temperature continuum), but also items such as "warm" or "tepid". Other items such as "urgent" do not initially appeared to be on a specific, easily identifiable, continuum, but they nevertheless identify a point towards the top of the "urgency" continuum in a way that "leaning" does not identify any particular point on the "inclination" continuum. (In the same way, "blue" does not identify any point on the "blueness" continuum, and is hence usually found in the defining group rather than the descriptive group.)

    In contrast to the “defining” category, we find adjectives such as “old” and “new” in this category rather than “18th-century”, which belongs to the “defining” category. In general, I contend that the pre-modifiers in the “defining” category are objectively quantified (“18th-century”), whereas items in the “descriptive” category are subjective and not quantified (“old”).
  4. Peripheral (pre-central)
    The items in this group appear to have no defining or descriptive quality, and I am happy to accept the term "peripheral" as given in Quirk et al. to cover "emphasizers", "amplifiers" and "downtoners". Pre-modifiers such as “entire”, “total”, “slight”, “unique” and so on are found here.
Thus, across the four categories, we have a continuum from (right to left) "isolating" -> "defining" -> "descriptive" -> "peripheral".

This gives us an underlying ordering criterion and allows easy categorization without resorting to parts of speech (participles, for instance, can occur anywhere).

Some notes on category membership
This level of ordering appears to me to be almost trivial compared with the ordering within the categories themselves, particularly within the descriptive category, but before I make a stab at that, a word about my little dog. The more I thought about it, the more I became aware that the word "little" appeared, rather inexplicably, to behave differently from the word "small". It then occurred to me that it does so in certain circumstances. To give just a couple of examples:
  • A little, painted cottage
  • A small, painted cottage
  • *A painted, little cottage
  • *A painted, small cottage
  • A small, frightened boy
  • A little, frightened boy
  • ? A frightened small boy
  • A frightened little boy
It seems to me that when we use "little" to qualify many inanimate things, we are concerned only about the size, and hence the word behaves in the same way as the word "small". It is descriptive and falls into the corresponding category. However, when we use the word "little" to qualify animate objects in particular (but also other items), it bears an extra meaning associated with cuteness, lovableness and so on. (In conjunction with the word "job", for instance, it can also bear the meaning "insignificant".) In such cases, the word is no longer merely descriptive, but takes on a defining character that would lever it into the defining category. This would appear to explain the noted discrepancies. In the case of "little dogs", for instance, I would even contend that it moves to the isolating category and (for me) clearly isolates a particular type of pampered, overfed, ill-trained, yappy, snappy animal that is at best only a peripheral member of the "dog" class.

It is important to remember that the isolating/defining/descriptive/peripheral distinction is the criterion according to which pre-modifiers are assigned to categories. It is merely coincidental that defining and isolating pre-modifiers are often nominal, participial or denominal. The form of a pre-modifier (nominal, participial, …) does not exclude it from any given category; neither does it provide a reliable test of category membership. To take a simple example, the participial "well-behaved" belongs to the central category in "the well-behaved old dog". There is a sense in which we are regarding "well-behaved" as gradable and placing the dog towards the top of a continuum of good behavior.

Similarly, it has been noted that colors usually fall into the defining (post-central) category, where they are not regarded as gradable. We can, however, force colors to be regarded as gradable and hence change their category. Compare the following:
  • A threatening, black cave
  • A very black, threatening cave
This phenomenon also occurs without explicit marking of the gradability of the color:
  • An old, black kettle
  • A black old kettle
In the first phrase, we are merely identifying that the kettle is black. In the second, we are saying that on a continuum of grubbiness/blackness, the kettle rates pretty highly (in our judgment). Clearly, this highlights the aspect of subjectivity and speaker intention that will occasionally produce an order that may appear infelicitous to another speaker.

In the same way, a pre-modifier usually found in the descriptive category can be promoted to the isolating category, as in "hot seat", "hot plate", "high society". In this event, the pre-modifiers lose their gradable aspect ("*the hotter seat", "*the very high society").

This implicit shift can, of course also be applied to the “black cave” example:
  • A black, threatening cave
Ordering within categories
Having established what appears to be a robust and usable sequence for pre-modifiers according to functional type, it remains to identify any "rules" that govern the ordering of pre-modifiers within their functional categories.

Ordering within the isolating category
Typically, the "isolating" category will only contain one element. I am at present not entirely clear as to whether this is a strong rule or not. It is clear that, in the phrase "the beautiful, old tea clipper", the word "tea" belongs to the isolating category. If, however, we expand the phrase to form "the beautiful, old China tea clipper", it is unclear whether the word "China" also belongs to the isolating category. There are a number of possible analyses:
  1. Both "tea" and "China" belong to the isolating category and are ordered by their isolating strength.
  2. "Tea" belongs to the isolating category and "China" belongs to the defining category.
  3. "Tea clipper" is an atomic concept, and "China" is in the isolating category in relation to the head "tea clipper".
Each of these approaches has its advantages and disadvantages, and it may well be that one analysis may be preferred for a given head. My own intuition is to prefer the second analysis unless there are good and clear reasons to prefer one of the other two. If the second approach is generally correct and the isolating category always or typically only contains a single item, ordering is of no significance. If the first approach is applied, ordering is by isolating strength. The third approach is recursive until the first or second approach is applied.

In any event, this issue does throw up the rather imprecise boundary between the defining and isolating categories. The issue can also be approached as follows: If we can identify ordering criteria for the defining category (see below), and we identify an element or elements immediately preceding the head that do not conform to the ordering criteria of the defining category, this is an indicator that the element or elements belong to the isolating category, in which case the speaker perceives them as "isolating".

Essentially, however, it remains my contention that the isolating category will usually only contain one item, in which case ordering is of no significance.

Ordering within the defining category
In order to initially develop a theory governing ordering within the “defining” category, I shall build and manipulate a phrase into which multiple defining elements can be inserted. To do so, I shall make use of the functional groups widely used in existing descriptions (shape, color, provenance, age, and so on).

As a starting point, let us take “steam engine”. This is clearly an instance of the head “engine” being preceded by an item from the “isolating” category, namely “steam”. It should not be possible to insert any further defining element between “steam” and “engine” (without fundamentally changing the underlying conceptualization). If we further add the word “old”, which belongs to the “descriptive” category, everything we insert from the “defining” category should appear between the words “old” and “steam”.

Our first element will belong to the functional group “style/design”:
“The old reciprocating steam engine”.
Now the fun starts. Let us add a word from the functional group “age”:
  • The old Victorian reciprocating steam engine
  • *The old reciprocating Victorian steam engine
It would thus appear that “age” precedes “style/design”. (Note that we have two items from the “age” domain, but they are from different categories, namely descriptive and defining.)

Now from the “weight” functional group:
  • The old 2-ton Victorian reciprocating steam engine
  • *The old Victorian 2-ton reciprocating steam engine
We can now pursue this method with further functional groups without creating a single monstrosity. Let us try “shape”:
  • *The old 2-ton square reciprocating steam engine
  • The old square 2-ton reciprocating steam engine
Proceeding in this way, we can establish the following hierarchy:
  1. Shape (square)
  2. Color (black)
  3. Physically identifiable features such as “crumbling”, “leaning”, often participial, can occur here, but see Note 1 below.
  4. Weight (2-ton) / Size (30-foot). Other quantifiable physical properties such as temperature also occur here, with the sequence being variable.
  5. Age (Victorian)
  6. Provenance (Belfast)
  7. Material (steel)
  8. Style/design (reciprocating), location (colliery), domain (agricultural), purpose (irrigation). See Note 2. Order is variable, but tends to go with defining weight, with the most defining characteristics closer to the head.
Note 1: “Physically identifiable properties” can be extremely difficult to distinguish from opinions, which rightfully belong in the “descriptive” category. Thus, we can have:
  • The crumbling old cottage
  • The old crumbling cottage

In the first instance, “crumbling” has been positioned in the “descriptive” category (preceding “old”, where it denotes a subjective opinion or judgment on the part of the speaker (see below). In the second instance, it has been placed in the “defining” category, where it denotes a physically identifiable, verifiable property. As in this case, the distinction can be very subtle, but indicates the degree of subjectivity of the speaker.

Note 2:The items in group 8 in particular are potential candidates for the “isolating” category, and in the absence of any item the clearly belongs to the “isolating” category (for instance an item which would not normally have this final position in the sequence), it is unclear, but of no significance, whether an item from group 8 should be assigned to the “defining” category or to the “isolating” category.

At first glance, this sequence appears to be relatively arbitrary, but it can be argued that there is a cognitive motivation for the sequence in the ease with which the relevant characteristics can be identified with the human senses (visual perception appears to take priority here).

Ordering within the descriptive category
Adopting the same procedure, and using the stop word “square” to demarcate the “defining” category, we can again work with a phrase such as “the big, old square house”. This procedure yields the following sequence:
  1. Subjective opinion (beautiful). If there are multiple subjective opinions, the order is undefined.
  2. Size (big)
  3. Other gradable qualities (welcoming, solid). See Note 1 below.
  4. Weight (not in this example, but “a big, heavy, old anvil”)
  5. Age (old)
  6. Temperature (cold)
  7. Humidity (damp)
Note 1:The position of gradable characteristics other than those listed separately appears to be unstable:
  • The big, welcoming, old house
  • The big, old, warm, welcoming house
  • ? The big, old, welcoming, warm house

A possible explanation for this is given below.

In general, this sequence appears to be much more susceptible to variation than the sequence for the “defining” category. It appears to be subject to prosody, discourse and pragmatic effects to a greater extent. If stressed correctly, it is perfectly possible to say “a welcoming, old, big house” or “a damp, cold, unwelcoming house”. All other things being equal, the sequence given above appears to hold, and it is possible to argue that there is also a continuum in operation here, namely the immediacy of the subjective impression. Our first perception is an overall impression, often associated with an extremely general opinion. The primarily visual impression of size is also extremely immediate, whereas impressions of temperature and humidity are less likely to be so immediate. This could well explain the extreme variability of the position of the “other gradable qualities”. (Only after I have identified that the house is big, damp and cold do I deem it to be unwelcoming as well.)

Ordering within the peripheral category
As with the “isolating” category, this category has a strong tendency only to admit a single item, so ordering within the category is of no significance. It should, however, be noted that this category is preceded by other pre-modifiers whose order is already well-documented elsewhere. These include various determiners, articles, demonstrative adjectives, and so on.

The general rules governing the order of pre-modifiers appear to be based on a continuum of four categories, two of which contain distinct ordering sequences.

There is a cognitive motivation for the sequence of the four categories to be found in the (objective) defining power of the items that appear in each category.

Within the “defining” category, there is a sequence which also appears to have a cognitive motivation, namely the ease of perception (with our human senses) of the given characteristic.

Equally, there appears to be a cognitive motivation for the sequence in the “descriptive” category, namely the immediacy of the perception of the given characteristic. This is similar, but not identical to the motivation for the sequence in the “defining” category. Because this motivation is particularly subjective, it leads to greater variation in sequence than within the “defining” category.

As it stands, I have only looked at a couple of examples based on inanimate, concrete heads. Characteristics that qualify animate or abstract heads in all probability form separate groups within the categories, but it is to be expected that they will be ordered in accordance with the general principles for ordering of the four categories themselves and for ordering within the “defining” and “descriptive” categories.

That’s my theory, anyway. I would appreciate it if you “kick the tires”.
Signature: Phil White
Non sum felix lepus

Re: Order of adjectives

Post by Edwin F Ashworth » Tue Oct 29, 2013 12:26 am

Fascinating, Phil. But it will take some thinking about.

You may want to look through 'Lexical Semantics of Adjectives: A Microtheory Of Adjectival Meaning' (Raskin), available as a pdf download.

Re: Order of adjectives

Post by Wizard of Oz » Tue Oct 29, 2013 7:32 am

"Edwin .. Edwin .. you playin in the sandpit with Erik and Phillip?? .. you play fair now .. no throwing sand and don't you get to knocking down each others sandcastles .. I likes it when you boys co-op-er-ate .. I met yo father playin in the sandpit .. or was it playin in the sandhills ???"

WoZ on playground duty
Signature: "The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."

Re: Order of adjectives

Post by JerrySmile » Sat Dec 14, 2013 3:34 am

You may consider the table here for

However, I'll start reading Phil's stuff, but I need my Quirk re-charged:-)

Re: Order of adjectives

Post by Phil White » Sat Dec 14, 2013 2:47 pm

Yes, that table is as good as any out there, but is subject to many exceptions, and fails to explain the apparently arbitrary or !capricious" nature of the sequence. The model I suggested seems to me to be based on a few relatively intuitive rules and offers a motivation for what appear to be exceptions in the more rigid models. But it is far from fully worked out.
Signature: Phil White
Non sum felix lepus

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