Adjective Order and Punctuation

Teaching students to use big, long lists of adjectives…

No native English speaker would say “the red, big house” because we all know that “the big, red house” sounds better. Students, on the other hand, need to be taught the correct order of multiple adjectives because they can’t rely on what sounds right. Luckily, rules about adjective order do exist and can be followed easily to avoid awkward errors. And what about using commas with multiple adjectives? Read on for the solutions to all your adjective teaching woes!

I. Punctuation of Multiple Adjectives

If the adjectives are all being used to describe the noun (aka coordinate adjectives), commas should separate them. Using “and” is a good test to determine if the multiple adjectives you’re using should follow this rule. (For an example of when a comma should not be used, see #8, Purpose, below.)

Examples of Punctuation with Multiple Adjectives:

  • She has long, dark hair. (She has long and dark hair; both long and dark are adjectives that describe the noun hair.)
  • I live in the big, red house down the street. (I live in the big and red house; both big and red describe the noun house.)
  • I admired the expensive, new, German cars at the car show. (I admired the expensive and new and German cars; expensive and new and German all describe the noun cars.)

Note: Using “and” is necessary when there is no noun that follows the adjectives: The cars were expensive, new, and German. Her hair is long and dark.)

II. Order of Multiple Adjectives

The natural order for multiple adjectives is based on what type of adjectives are used. Adjectives should appear in this order:

1. OPINION (what you think about something) –  e.g., beautiful, expensive, easy, delicious

2. SIZE – e.g., big, small

3. AGE – e.g., young, old

4. SHAPE – e.g., round, rectangular

5. COLOUR – e.g., red, white

6. ORIGIN (where something came from) – e.g., European, Japanese

7. MATERIAL (what something is made from) – e.g., metal, silk

Adjectives of purpose are also included in this list, but please be careful about punctuation with these adjectives:

8. PURPOSE (what something is used for) – e.g., sleeping (as in sleeping bag), English (as in English teacher)
Note: Purpose adjectives are a bit different in that they end up specifying what the noun is rather than just describing it. For example, sleeping bag is now a specific type of bag, whereas red bag could be any type of bag that is red. Be careful about punctuation with purpose adjectives: You will NOT need a comma between another type of adjective and a purpose adjective. For example:

  • I have a red sleeping bag. (colour, no comma, purpose)
  • I have a comfortable, red sleeping bag. (opinion, comma, colour, no comma, purpose)

Examples of Order with Multiple Adjectives:

  • My friend is a talented, young musician. (opinion, age)
  • That car is a beautiful, older, Italian model. (opinion, age, origin)
  • I bought a shiny, small, square, metal vase. (opinion, size, shape, material)
  • We browsed through the many antique, colourful, silk dresses in the boutique. (age, colour, material)

Note: If the multiple adjectives are of the same type, then you can use any order you want. For example:

  • She has a funny, kind coworker. (opinion, opinion)
  • She has a kind, funny coworker. (opinion, opinion)

I hope that these confusing, stress-inducing rules are now clear in your mind so that you can easily teach them to your students! If anything is still unclear, please let me know in the comment section below.

For a ready-made lesson that includes practice with adjective order, try our new Skateboarding (Famous Things) lesson.

Tanya

Sources:

  • Chicago Manual of Style, 16th edition, sections 5.90 and 6.33.
  • University of Victoria English Language Centre, http://web2.uvcs.uvic.ca/elc/studyzone/410/grammar/adjord.htm.

27 comments

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  1. evelym.cg@gmail.com'

    Evelym Gomez says:

    May 09, 2017 at 5:08 pm

    Hey! I have a question. How can we define adjectives related to appareance? For expample, long-haired, black-skinned, etc. How are they used in a sentence?

    Reply

    • Tanya Trusler says:

      May 10, 2017 at 3:50 pm

      If the descriptors are in different categories, follow the rules mentioned above.

      E.g., She was a beautiful, young, Japanese woman.

      If the descriptors are all in the opinion category, it doesn’t matter what order you put them in. But the descriptors you mentioned could fall into categories (long-haired for shape and black-skinned for color), so long-haired, black-skinned sounds best in that order.

      Reply

  2. mbandar11@gmail.com'

    masoome says:

    Apr 09, 2017 at 12:49 am

    dear tanya,
    i have two questions:
    1-can we say that “new” is a kind of adj related to “age”?
    2- how can I realize the differences between General opinion adj and Specific opinion adj, like :beautiful and brilliant?

    Reply

    • Tanya Trusler says:

      Apr 10, 2017 at 1:39 pm

      Good questions!

      Yes, “new” can be used for age in objects. For example, we can say “a new car” compared to “an old car.” For people, we sometimes use “new” for age with babies, as in “Congratulations on your new family member!”

      I’m not sure what you mean by general and specific opinion. Do you mean if it’s only your opinion or if it’s an opinion shared by many people? In any case, I’d say it doesn’t matter because it won’t affect the order.

      Hope that helps!

      Reply

  3. niyoemma6@gmail.com'

    NIYOKWIZERWA EMMANUEL says:

    Feb 12, 2017 at 7:23 am

    I have understood well but i have a question even though it is not related to adjectives, if i say 1.”i am worried about,…” or 2. “i am worried of,…” whch sentence is correct? and why? how do we this kind of writtings? think about or think of? look after or look for? how will i know that i am using good english?

    Reply

    • Tanya Trusler says:

      Feb 13, 2017 at 1:28 pm

      Great question. “Worried about” is correct. “Worried of” is not. Some verb + preposition combinations are phrasal verbs, while others are just common expressions. Unfortunately, most of these involve memorization and practice!

      In my blog post on phrasal verbs, I give a few tips on how to teach/learn them, and there are also links to common phrasal verb lists at the end: http://blog.esllibrary.com/2013/08/08/how-do-you-teach-phrasal-verbs/

      Hope that helps!

      Reply

  4. luisjr.suyam@yahoo.com'

    Luis says:

    Dec 26, 2016 at 10:14 pm

    Thanks for the info…im just confused with these adjective…is it snowy cold weather or cold snowy weather…why?….abd where does colorful fall into…is it under gen. Opinion or color….thanks for the answer

    Reply

    • Tanya Trusler says:

      Dec 29, 2016 at 5:49 pm

      Hi Luis,

      You could say either “cold, snowy weather” or “snowy, cold weather” because they are both opinion adjectives. I would say that “cold, snowy weather” sounds more natural just because temperature adjectives like “hot” and “cold” are more common.

      Good question about “colorful”! It is usually used in the colour position, as in this example from the post above:
      We browsed through the many antique, colourful, silk dresses in the boutique. (age, colour, material)

      Be aware that some people may argue that “colourful” is an opinion adjective, but I think it sounds more natural used as a colour adjective. For example, “delicious, colorful candy” sounds more natural than “colorful, delicious candy” in my opinion.

      Hope that helps!

      Reply

  5. uhclem08@yahoo.com'

    Charles Waterman says:

    Jun 30, 2016 at 4:25 am

    It seems like there’s disagreement on the Internet about when commas are *not* needed between adjectives. I like a lot of what the author of this site says about adjectives from the same category and from different categories:

    http://theeditorsblog.net/2014/04/08/keeping-adjectives-in-line/

    If that writer is correct, (and my internal correcter thinks she is) then we *only* use commas between two adjectives of the same category from the “royal” order of adjectives. What do you think?

    Reply

    • Tanya Trusler says:

      Jul 05, 2016 at 1:35 pm

      Thanks for sharing that great post. I think that cumulative vs. non-cumulative is often up for debate, which is why using commas between different categories from the “royal” order of adjectives is often up to the speaker! For example:

      – a long velvet drape (= correct. Is the velvet drape long? Yes, so this cumulative adjective example doesn’t need a comma.)
      – a long, velvet drape (= also correct. Is the drape long and velvet? Yes, so this non-cumulative adjective example needs a comma.)

      I think it often depends how you look at it. I’d teach the basic rules to low-level learners, but by all means, get into the discussion and debate of comma vs. no comma with higher-level learners! These things are what makes English difficult but fascinating. :)

      It’s also worth noting that the trend these days is moving away from “unnecessary” comma usage, so the example without a comma is probably the more popular choice these days.

      Reply

  6. asuncionklarkjames@yahoo.com.ph'

    Klark James S. Asuncion says:

    Nov 06, 2015 at 5:02 am

    What is: Ordering of adjecives- visual examples? I didn’t know what is the meaning of that…

    Reply

    • Tanya Trusler says:

      Dec 02, 2015 at 5:50 pm

      Hi Klark, I’m not quite sure what you’re asking. Was this something you saw in the post?

      Reply

  7. tanya@tbtk.net'

    Tanya says:

    Jul 08, 2014 at 9:36 pm

    Hi everyone,

    I’ve thought of a good test for recognizing if you need a comma between adjectives or not (whether it’s a purpose adjective or not–see #8 above). See if the sentence still makes sense if you switch the order of the adjectives. If it does, you need a comma/commas. If it doesn’t, you can’t use a comma/commas.

    For example, switching “He is a talkative, energetic student” to “He is an energetic, talkative student” makes sense, so you need a comma in both cases.

    But switching “I have a red, sleeping bag” to “I have a sleeping, red bag” does not make sense, so you CAN’T use a comma. The correct sentence is “I have a red sleeping bag” with NO comma.

    Hope that helps! :)

    Reply

  8. diegofer57ster@gmail.com'

    Diego Lozada says:

    May 26, 2014 at 3:22 pm

    Hello, I understood the topic, but one question came to my mind. What would be the order if for example there are two colours? Or two adjectives?

    A ugly yellow red hat or A ugly red yello?

    Thanks!

    Reply

    • Tanya Trusler says:

      May 26, 2014 at 4:26 pm

      Hi Diego,

      If there are two adjectives of the same type, you can choose the order you want. For example, you can say “an ugly, expensive hat” OR “an expensive, ugly hat”.

      But with colours, it’s a little different, because we usually use “and” to join colours. So I would say “an ugly, yellow and red hat” OR “an ugly, red and yellow hat”.

      If you want to use three colours, it would look like this: “an ugly, red, white, and yellow hat” with the colours in any order you want.

      Hope that helps!
      Tanya

      Reply

  9. damonm@wildblue.net'

    Damon Farris says:

    Jul 12, 2013 at 4:43 am

    Hi;
    Since this adjective order is new to me, I was a little confused with their order. I thought it was relative to the noun, but I guess it is relative to the first word in the sentence. i.e., left to right.

    Thanks. The order is clear to me anyway. That is #8 is closest to the noun.

    Reply

    • Tanya Trusler says:

      Jul 15, 2013 at 7:55 pm

      Hi Damon,

      Yes, it depends on the type of adjective. I’m glad it’s less confusing for you now.

      The relationship between the adjective and noun is still important for the basic adjective sentence patterns in English: 1) Adj + N (She has a new car) and 2) Be + Adj (Her car is new). That doesn’t affect multiple-word adjectives in pattern #1, but note that we use “and” in pattern #2. (She has a shiny, new car. / Her car is shiny and new.)

      Tanya

      Reply

  10. guadalupebosque@hotmail.com'

    Guadalupe Bosque says:

    Apr 03, 2013 at 7:58 pm

    Thanks a lot for clarifying my teaching, mostly on the punctuation! Here goes one:
    ESL Library is an appealing, helpful, fun, and interesting website.
    Tell me about punctuation on this one, I have my doubts on the comma.

    Reply

    • tanya@tbtk.net'

      Tanya says:

      Apr 04, 2013 at 10:41 pm

      Hi Guadalupe,

      I like your example sentence! :)

      Your punctuation is completely correct. The last comma before the “and” is optional, but I prefer to include it myself.

      Thanks for your comment,
      Tanya

      Reply

  11. dawnwintoo@yahoo.com'

    Dawn says:

    Mar 31, 2013 at 8:32 pm

    This is excellent!Thank you Tanya for your teaching materials.

    Reply

    • Tanya Trusler says:

      Mar 17, 2015 at 9:26 pm

      You’re welcome, Dawn! Thanks for your comment.

      Reply

  12. dpompilio@yahoo.it'

    Dana says:

    Mar 11, 2013 at 11:37 am

    Thank you so much Tanya for your interesting and useful posts!

    Reply

    • tanya@tbtk.net'

      Tanya says:

      Mar 11, 2013 at 8:53 pm

      You’re very welcome!

      Reply

  13. Tara Benwell says:

    Mar 07, 2013 at 10:38 pm

    Teachers: You will be able to review these adjective rules with your students in our upcoming Famous Things lesson plan on Skateboarding…coming in April!

    Reply

  14. Tara Benwell says:

    Mar 07, 2013 at 6:04 pm

    We have an intelligent, young, Canadian editor on our team. Did I get that right?

    Reply

    • tanya@tbtk.net'

      Tanya says:

      Mar 07, 2013 at 8:47 pm

      You did! And what a great example, haha! ;)

      Reply

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