John Larrysson Column: The Order of Adjectives


"You will be staying in the local best hotel."


Upon hearing this sentence most native English speakers will assume that you mean a local hotel called Best Hotel. The speaker meant the best hotel that is local. The reason for the confusion is that English has an order to the adjectives (describing words) used to describe a noun (thing). In theory, the most important and specific descriptions go later, so that they can be closer to the noun. Practically it does not always work out that way.

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When English speakers use more than one adjective in front of a noun there is a required order. This problem is often not taught and most native speakers use this order without thinking. It is the sort of thing that sounds wrong, but most native speakers and English teachers could not explain why it is wrong.

In English one can have a small dark wooden box. You cannot have a wooden dark small box. That structure would suggest that the dark is made out of wood, not the box. That structure does not make sense.

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Adjectives should be in this order:


Ownership (names and pronouns)


The possessives such as yours, his, hers, Alice's and so on come before the regular adjectives.


General opinion (usable for anything)

These words could be used to describe almost anything. Examples include: good, horrible, great, wonderful...

Specific opinion (usable for this type of thing)

These words only make sense when describing certain types of things. Food can be delicious, but a pencil cannot. A person might be clever, but not a chair (unless it was computerized).


big, tiny, large...


round, square, hexagonal...


old, new, twelve-year old...


red, blue, green...

Place of origin

Chinese, northern, outdoor, Canadian, urban, Manchurian...

Remember that the place a thing, or its styling, comes from does not have to be a country.

What it is made of

plastic, wooden, amber, stone...

Qualifying noun

Another noun that is used as an adjective is put immediately before the noun. Examples, include library book, river water and queen bee. These words normally go together, but are not actual compound words, such as newspaper.


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Some words are made from an adjective and a noun. They are not separated; they are one word. For example, goldfish is one word, so Chinese goldfish is correct, never gold Chinese fish. The fish is not made from gold. Gold is only the colour of the goldfish.



She is a big brown outdoor cat. (Correct)


She is a cat that stays outdoors and not in the house. She is brown and she is big.


She is an outdoor brown big cat. (Incorrect)


She is the colour outdoor-brown, whatever that looks like. She is also a big cat.

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English uses some adjectives after the noun. For example: Correct: The baby is asleep.

Incorrect: It is an asleep baby. The order of adjectives and this list does not apply to these adjectives.

Usually it is better not to put too many adjectives in front of a noun. One is common and allows the speaker to ignore this list. Two are often hyphenated by (and for) second-language learners to avoid confusion. Three is uncommon and more than three is going to look clumsy. It would be poor English style to try to use this entire list for one noun. There is no rule limiting the number of adjectives, but too many looks absurd.

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There are several exceptions to this list. So do not worry about following it too strictly. I suggest that while this order might be mentioned to stronger second-language students, no marks should ever be taken off for getting it wrong. (There are too many exceptions.) An easy way to remember the order of adjectives is that the most important descriptions often go closest to the thing being described.

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by John Larrysson

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A native English speaker who has been teaching practical English in Hong Kong for over two decades.

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