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.
- 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.