|Oregon State Bar Bulletin JULY 2012|
Which of the following sentences uses correct word order?
The law old black treatise was lying on the table.
The black old law treatise was lying on the table.
The black law old treatise was lying on the table.
The old black law treatise was lying on the table.
If you grew up speaking English as your native language, or if you’ve devoted years to learning English’s many nuances, you know that the last sentence contains the correct word order. Native English speakers, however, most likely do not know why the order in the last sentence is correct. That sentence just sounds right. Non-native speakers have a better chance of knowing the reason for the order, likely because of studying charts that explain adjective order.
Yes, believe it or not, there are actually charts that map out the order of adjectives in English sentences. No, you don’t need to read them (or this article) to know how to place adjectives in order, but aren’t you fascinated to know that such charts even exist for English! Somehow, I’ve studied four other languages – each with its own charts and maps and mnemonic devices – yet never wondered about similar aids in English. (Somehow, I’ve failed to master even one of those other languages, but that’s a separate issue.)
After reading the short adjective chart (not the “adjective short chart”) in this article, and playing around with a few more samples, you’ll likely join me in marveling at the beautiful complexity of the English language. You might also emerge a little more sympathetic to the non-native-speaking client or colleague who occasionally trips up on adjective placement. It’s hard stuff – until it’s hard-wired into your brain.
Before talking about adjective placement, let’s spend one paragraph reviewing what adjectives are. These are the words that describe nouns. Nouns, of course, are the people, places, things and ideas that each sentence is about. To comment on the state of those people, places, things and ideas, we use adjectives. The plain noun lawyer becomes more interesting when described as the “savvy lawyer” or the “compassionate lawyer.”
In English, adjectives precede nouns. The “lawyer savvy” just sounds wrong; the adjective savvy incorrectly appears after the noun lawyer.
Life becomes more complicated, but even more interesting, when more than one adjective describes a noun, as in the “savvy European lawyer.” (Did you try out “European savvy lawyer” and decide it didn’t work?) English has an order in which multiple adjectives typically appear. The order depends on the type of information the adjective conveys: an opinion about the noun, its appearance, its origin, etc.
The Amazing Chart
The following chart is one of the very coolest things this grammar geek has stumbled across in ages.1It lists the typical order of English adjectives, with examples. Read through each of the items carefully, and then try your hand at the samples.
OPINION: interesting, thoughtful, wise, lovely
SIZE: minuscule, tiny, small, medium, large, gargantuan
CONDITION: perfect, fine, broken, irreplaceable
AGE: young, adolescent, old, ancient
SHAPE: circular, oblong, hexagonal, triangular, square
COLOR: blue, teal, turquoise, azure, cerulean, cobalt
ORIGIN: Floridian, Mexican, Australian, East Asian
MATERIAL: concrete, brick, paper, papyrus
PURPOSE: carving (as in “knife”), sleeping (as in “bag”)
I tried to come up with an equally cool mnemonic to help me remember this order. OSCASCOMP?? Then I realized that I have the order hard-wired into my brain already. And amazing charts are just a mouse click away.
Of course, English being English, there are exceptions and charts don’t always agree.2 Some put size, condition and shape in one large category called APPEARANCE. And I’m not going to touch regional differences, or the way folks in your family just happen to say things because that’s what Great-Grandmother Henderson always said and we know how smart she was.
To prove that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, try your hand at the following sentences. If they seem too challenging, you’re just over-thinking them. Flip to another article and come back in a few minutes. Select the correct order without looking at the chart, letting your intuitive sense of correctness kick in. The answers are at the end of this article.
1. The ________ judge wrote an opinion that jurists from other nations found convincing.
a. Belgian old wise b. wise Belgian old c. wise old Belgian d. old wise Belgian
2. The ________ courtroom erupted in laughter when the witness repeated the defendant’s admonition.
a. enormous rectangular b. rectangular enormous
3. The chef preferred a ________ knife.
a. carving metal beige b. beige metal carving c. metal carving beige
With all of those adjective flying around, surely you are wondering about correct comma usage between them. You weren’t? Really? Well, indulge me just the same.
Use a comma between two adjectives that give the same type of information but are mutually independent. These are called coordinate adjectives; they are equal and either could come first.3 Order doesn’t matter. For example, if you have two OPINION adjectives, say “demanding” and “ornery” to describe your co-worker, either could come first. Another test for whether adjectives are coordinate is placing the word “and” between them. If the resulting sentence sounds fine, then the adjectives are coordinate. The original sentence below is in bold; all the other variations work fine, too, meaning that the two adjectives are coordinate and need a comma.
My demanding, ornery co-worker annoys all of the paralegals.
My ornery, demanding co-worker annoys all of the paralegals.
My demanding and ornery co-worker annoys all of the paralegals.
My ornery and demanding co-worker annoys all of the paralegals.
If the adjectives fail those tests, they don’t deserve commas. Notice how awkward the sentences below sound – except the first.
The office was in a new brick building.
The office was in a brick new building.
The office was in a new and brick building. The office was in a brick and new building.
The adjectives “new” and “brick” as used here are not coordinates. That means the word order matters and no commas are needed.
Every language comes with exceptions to its rule, and English seems to have more exceptions than most. Moreover, English lets us play with word order to achieve a different mood or to capture the reader’s attention. Sometimes, just for emphasis, we get to play with the language and ignore all of the guidelines in the chart. You can most often just trust your inner ear. If it sounds good, do it.
1. Various versions of this chart are available on the Internet. Here’s my favorite, from the University of Victoria’s English Language Centre (which of course is spelled the “British” way):http://web2.uvcs.uvic.ca/elc/studyzone/410/grammar/adjord.htm.
2. A similar chart appears at My English Teacher, http://www.myenglishteacher.net/adjectivesorder.html.
3. The Purdue Online Writing Lab explains this concept well and provides many useful examples (not “useful many examples”): http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/re source/607/02.
1. c. wise old Belgian (opinion, age, origin)
2. a. enormous rectangular (size, shape)
3. b. beige metal carving (color, material, purpose)
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Suzanne E. Rowe is the James L. and Ilene R. Hershner Professor at the University of Oregon School of Law, where she directs the Legal Research and Writing Program. She is grateful for insights provided by Mark Corley, who teaches English as a foreign language to adults.
An archive of The Legal Writer articles is available here.
© 2012 Suzanne E. Rowe