The Latest VOA Special English
Archive of VOA Special English
What Is the Word Order of Adjectives?

2019-2-7

Hi, everyone. How’s your day going? This morning, the Metro was loud, hot and crowded…again. And the train driver kept stopping and starting so I lost my footing and bumped into someone. Ugh.

I need a different way to get to work! But what? Oh, I know: I’ll buy a new folding bike! Oh wait – or is it a folding new bike? No, that doesn’t sound right. New folding bike is right.

I just used two adjectives to describe the bike: new and folding. But why couldn’t I change the order? The answer is that they are cumulative adjectives. And, in today’s program, I’m going to tell you about them.

Cumulative adjectives

When we use more than one adjective to describe a noun, the adjectives are either cumulative or coordinative.

Cumulative adjectives are adjectives that must appear in a special order to express the meaning that we want to express. For example, if I told a native English speaker I was buying a folding new bike, they might not understand me.

You’ll note that I also used three adjectives to describe the Metro: loud, hot and crowded. But those adjectives are coordinative. They do not follow a special order. And they have different punctuation rules.

The order of cumulative adjectives is as follows: quantity, opinion, size, age, color, shape, origin, material and purpose.

Quantity

Let’s talk about the first one – quantity.

These adjectives answer the question “How much?” or “How many?” They can refer to specific numbers, like two or 31, or to more general amounts, like “whole” “half” “a lot” or “several.”

Let’s hear an example:

I’m about to order two large pizzas. Which toppings do you like?

The adjective “two” comes before the adjective “large” and they both describe the noun “pizza.”

If the person had said, “I’m about to order large two pizzas,” the listeners would have probably been confused. That’s strong evidence that these are cumulative adjectives.

Opinion

Next in word order comes opinion adjectives, which express how we feel about something.

Descriptive words like “tasty” “strong” “ugly” “costly” “stubborn” and “happy” are examples of our opinions.

For instance:

I ordered two tasty large pizzas for the game.

The three adjectives -- two, large and tasty -- all work as a group to build meaning onto one another rather than act as individual descriptions of the noun “pizza.”

A very old red Ford pick-up truck. Some might call it
A very old red Ford pick-up truck. Some might call it "ugly" and that would be an example of an opinion adjective.

Size

OK, now onto size. This includes any number of descriptive size words, such as “large” “big” and “little.”

In our pizza example, the size (large) follows the established order.

Here it is again. Listen for the word “large” after the other adjectives.

I ordered two tasty large pizzas for the game.

Age

OK, next is age. This can refer to specific age adjectives, such as 16-year-old, or such words as “young” “old” “middle-aged” and so on.

One thing to note is that, in English, it is possible but not common for more than three adjectives to describe one noun in speech or writing.

In addition, not all native speakers or English experts put age after opinion.

With that in mind, consider this example:

The big old ugly pick-up truck puttered along the road.

That is how I – along with many American English speakers – would say it. Notice that I put the word “old” before the opinion “ugly.”

But, based on the traditional order, it would go like this:

The ugly big old pick-up truck puttered along the road.

Shape

Next up, we have shape. This includes words like “long” “short” and “round” or words for specific shapes, like square.

Here’s how you might use it:

The ugly big old wide pick-up truck puttered along the road.

That's a lot of adjectives for one noun -- a rarity but not impossible.

Color

And now we come to color. We normally use color adjectives to describe objects and animals:

The ugly big old wide red pick-up truck puttered along the road.

Does this sound like too many descriptive words? That’s because it probably is.

Origin

Alright, let’s talk about the next group: origin, ethnicity and religion. Words like Persian or Christian fall in this group.

But, instead of putting several adjectives before one noun, let’s hear what a real person might say:

We found a beautiful 200-year-old blue Persian rug.

Material

OK, then there’s material. Material adjectives are usually nouns that act as adjectives when used to describe other nouns -- like metal, paper and silk.

We’ll build on the rug example, like this:

We found a beautiful 200-year-old blue Persian silk rug.

As you can hear, five adjectives do not sound very appealing! But technically speaking, it is both correct and acceptable.

Purpose

Finally, we have purpose. Remember back when I described the bike I hoped to buy? I used the word “folding” to describe a very specific kind of bike.

For purpose adjectives, we usually also use a noun as an adjective. “Folding” is a gerund – a kind of noun ending in -ing.

So, let’s suppose I got my wish. I might say this:

My pretty new electric folding bike is so much fun! I’m very happy with it.

By now, you might be wondering: How do we know if an adjective is cumulative or not? Visit our website to see how to do the cumulative adjective test.

I’m Alice Bryant.

Alice Bryant wrote this story for Learning English. Ashley Thompson was the editor.

______________________________________________________________

Test it out

There are two tests you can use to identify whether an adjective is cumulative or coordinative.


Test 1: The “and” test

For the first test, try putting the word “and” between the adjectives. Using the word “and” suggests the adjectives have equal importance. This would make them coordinative, not cumulative.

Let’s try it with “new folding bike.” Does “new and folding bike” have the same meaning as “new folding bike”? Not so much. So, we know they are cumulative, not coordinative.

Test 2: Change the order

For the second test, change the order of the adjectives and decide whether the meaning changes. For example, “Folding new bike” does change the meaning. So we must keep the original order and these are cumulative adjectives.

Punctuation

We also punctuate cumulative and coordinative adjectives differently.

We do not put commas between cumulative adjectives nor do we put “and” between them, as in today’s many examples.

We do put commas between coordinative adjectives and we can use the word “and,” as in “loud, hot and crowded Metro.”

______________________________________________________________

Practice

Now, test yourself! Read the sentences below and decide whether the darkened words are cumulative or coordinative adjectives. Write your answers in the comments section.

The dealer carries a large collection of vintage sports cars.

Your big loud radio kept the neighbors awake last night.

The huge white dog refused to take his medicine.

Do you know who put this ugly broken computer here?

I took a short restful break before continuing to study.

They made me a sweet lemony cake for my birthday.

______________________________________________________________

Words in This Story

bump – v. to hit something, such as part of your body, against an object or person in a sudden way

punctuation – n. the marks, such as periods and commas, in a piece of writing that make its meaning clear

stubborn – adj. refusing to change your ideas or to stop doing something

putter – v. to make small popping sounds while moving slowly

origin – n. the point or place where something begins or is created

rug – n. a piece of thick, heavy material that is used to cover usually a section of a floor

silk – n. a smooth, soft, and shiny cloth that is made from thread produced by silkworms

vintage – adj. describing something that is not new but is valued because of its good condition and attractive design