Is there a explicit grammar rule governing the order of adjectives?
May 1, 2021 8:01 AM   Subscribe

My gut says that there is, and I think I may have actually read something about here, on the green, at some point. Thanks
posted by BadgerDoctor to Education (12 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Is this what you are looking for?
posted by james33 at 8:04 AM on May 1, 2021 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: I think so. Thanks
posted by BadgerDoctor at 8:05 AM on May 1, 2021

I have never know the rule to be taught and I'm not sure it's defined in style manuals, but it is very much in use.
posted by theora55 at 8:24 AM on May 1, 2021

I learned this in high school French for adjective - I've never thought about if it "translates" into English.

BANGS - Beauty, Age, Number, Goodness, Size

"a cute little cat" sounds more natural to me than "a little cute cat" - but by the same token, I'd say a "cute little baby cat," not "a cute baby little cat"

So I suppose it really isn't super helpful in English.
posted by firei at 8:39 AM on May 1, 2021

In his lovely, rectangular book The Elements of Eloquence, Mark Forsyth illustrates that order with this example: Lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife. The adjectives start with opinion (little) and progress through an additional seven categories, ending with purpose (whittling).

Here’s the full breakdown:

1. Opinion (lovely)
2. Size (little)
3. Age (old)
4. Shape (rectangular)
5. Color (green)
6. Origin (French)
7. Material (silver)
8. Purpose (whittling)

If you significantly alter that order, you might make it difficult for your listeners or readers to even understand the meaning. Whittling French green lovely rectangular silver old little knife sounds like nonsense. Breaking up whittling and knife with any adjective, like whittling French knife or whittling little knife, almost makes it sound like the knife is currently whittling.

Forsyth’s classification system works well with his example phrase, but he’s not the only grammarian with thoughts on the matter. Cambridge Dictionary offers its own classification system, which includes two extra categories: Physical quality (like thin or rough) and type (like general-purpose or four-sized).

It also slightly reorders Forsyth’s categories, as you can see below:

1. Opinion
2. Size
3. Physical quality
4. Shape
5. Age
6. Color
7. Origin
8. Material
9. Type
10. Purpose

According to those rules, Forsyth’s whittling knife should be a lovely little rectangular old knife, rather than a lovely little old rectangular knife. Breaking up little and old might sound odd, but it’s possible that we’re just really accustomed to hearing little and old right next to each other, as in little old lady or little old me.

As is common in the world of linguistics, there are often different interpretations—and almost always exceptions—when it comes to grammar, and you can definitely rely on your instincts for this one, since they’ve likely been serving you well before you ever knew about adjective order.
posted by ananci at 8:43 AM on May 1, 2021 [24 favorites]

Previous on Le Bleu: Opinion-Size-Age-Shape-Colour-Origin-Material-Purpose-Noun
Meanwhile at Opinion Size PhysicalQual Shape Age Colour Origin Material Type Purpose
Or what ananci says.
These shibboleths embedded quirks of grammatical English allow native speaker to smoke out Danes and Dutch who get the accent and intonation correct.
posted by BobTheScientist at 8:59 AM on May 1, 2021 [3 favorites]

Weird how none of these examples are great green gobs of greasy grimy gopher guts.
posted by deludingmyself at 8:59 AM on May 1, 2021 [13 favorites]

This is a question that has a long and continuing research interest behind it. Fun stuff to think about :)
posted by baptismal at 9:28 AM on May 1, 2021 [2 favorites]

The BANGS rule for French just lists which categories of adjectives go before the noun rather than (as usual) after it. The letters are in that particular order only because it makes for a good mnemonic.
posted by dfan at 11:21 AM on May 1, 2021 [1 favorite]

Definitely it's instinctual (at least I've never thought of this explicitly, so n = 1), but I think the instinct is based on a scale that goes from more subjective, impermanent, or inessential characteristics (first) to more objective, permanent, or essential ones (last). For example:

The knife is objectively rectangular, and has always been that way (unless it's been modified)
It's old now, but it wasn't always that way
It's little relative to the others I'm thinking of, but with a different sample it could be the big knife
In my subjective opinion it's lovely

So it's the lovely little old rectangular knife.
posted by wps98 at 8:49 PM on May 1, 2021

Try the Royal Order of Adjectives:
(Scroll down to the color chart.)
I keep a printout of it handy for my work as a copyeditor.
posted by wisekaren at 7:48 AM on May 2, 2021

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