Column: The mysterious order of adjectives


Commentary by Curtis Honeycutt

Everyone’s on the lookout for their next clever party anecdote for that awkward pause between the cheese course and dessert (I know I am). The perfect quip at the perfect time will make you feel like a million bucks in the tuxedo people are now assuming you own. If you memorize today’s grammar gem, you’re guaranteed to be the hero at the next soiree or gala you attend.

Do you remember the mnemonic device from math that goes, “Please excuse my dear Aunt Sally?” This helps you remember the order of operations in a math equation (parentheses, exponents, multiplication, division, addition, subtraction). In English, there’s an equivalent but largely unknown “order of operations” for the order in which adjectives go in front of a noun. Even more shocking is that this rule is taught to most non-native speakers, but native speakers are never taught it. The order is quantity, opinion, size, physical quality, shape, age, color, origin, material, type, purpose, noun.

We are never formally taught this adjective order, but we know that “five wrinkly octogenarian bronze Italian sunbathers” sounds correct (albeit an odd scenario), but if you say “octogenarian five Italian wrinkly bronze sunbathers,” you sound like a total weirdo. You don’t know how you know that’s wrong; you just know it.

Let’s try it with some simpler phrases. You’d never say “old little lady”; you would always say “little old lady.” Likewise, “blue suede shoes” sounds right, but you would never say “suede blue shoes.” You’ve probably heard someone remark about their baby’s “big brown eyes,” but if that same parent went on about their baby’s “brown big eyes” you’d think something was wrong with them. Try saying these phrases out loud and you’ll hear how truly ridiculous adjectives in the wrong order sound to your English-preferring ears.

And, while I don’t have a clever mnemonic device for adjective order, it’s something you should feel privileged not to know — unless, that is, you want to be the talk of your town’s small secretive Sicilian social circle.