The Order of Adjectives
Placing eight adjectives in their correct order for the sake of having the perfect sentence is a mind-boggling task in learning English grammar. Interestingly, even English native speakers don’t have any idea that there’s a binding rule that must be followed when doing so. Out of 10 English native speakers, there’s only at least one who knows the rule.
But some rules in English grammar are things that native speakers know but don’t know they know, even though they use them every day. When someone points one out, it’s like a magical little shock.
The threshold question in the line is: Should we learn the correct order of adjectives?
Obviously, as learners of the English language, this might be helpful in the future. If you’re a teacher, you must because this grammar rule always has students mixed up. Learning how to put the order of adjectives correctly in the sentence will also come in handy, especially when you come across multiple adjectives in the sentence.
For instance, the BBC’s Matthew Anderson via twitter pointed out a “rule” about the right order of adjectives before a noun. Judging by the number of retweets—over 75,500 at last count—this came as a complete surprise to many people who thought they knew all about English.
The acronym O-S-A-S-C-O-M-P
That quote comes from a book called The Elements of Eloquence: How to Turn the Perfect English Phrase. Adjectives, writes the author, professional grammar Nazi Mark Forsyth, “absolutely have to be in this order: Opinion-size-age-shape-colour-origin-material-purpose Noun. So you can have a lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife. But if you mess with that order in the slightest, you’ll sound like a maniac.”
Failing to arrange the adjectives in the above phrase, as Forsyth notes, feel inexplicably wrong (a rectangular silver French old little lovely whittling green knife…), though nobody can say why. It’s almost like a secret knowledge we all share.
At QQEnglish, where we teach ESL learners very important grammar rules, learning the order of adjectives is done in such meticulous detail. Grammatically, we use a book published by Cambridge University Press to simplify the rule to our English language learners.
To easily remember the Royal Rule for the order of the adjectives, we can use the acronym O-S-A-S-C-O-M-P.
Firstly, the word order comes from adjectives that show opinion towards something. These words simply describe what we feel and say about a specific noun.
Adjectives like “delicious” “beautiful” “energetic” “lazy” and “sad” are examples of our opinions.
She baked DELICIOUS small cupcakes for her birthday.
The words delicious and small are adjectives working as a group in the sentence to build meaning onto one another rather than act as individual descriptions of the noun “cupcakes.”
Second, in the order of adjectives is the size. These are the adjectives that describe sizes such as “large” “huge” and “small.”
In the example above, we use the adjective small to describe the size of the cupcakes.
She baked delicious SMALL cupcakes for her birthday.
In the order of adjectives, next after size should be descriptive words for age. Some examples of specific age adjectives are “young,” “old”, “ancient,” 2-year-old, and so on.
It is very important to note that in English; it is possible but not common for over three adjectives to describe one noun in speech or writing. Besides, not all native speakers or English experts put age after opinion.
With that in mind, consider this example:
The big old ugly pick-up truck puttered along the road.
That is how I—along with many American English speakers—would say it. Notice that I put the word “old” before the opinion “ugly.”
But, based on the traditional order, it would go like this:
The rusty big OLD delivery truck has been stationary along the road for years now.
After age comes shape adjectives in the order of adjectives. Some shape-describing adjectives are “round,” “long,” “short” and so on.
The rusty big old WIDE delivery truck has been stationary along the road for years now.
Can you imagine we already have 5 adjectives in the example above?
In the order of adjectives, color adjectives come next after shape. We normally use color adjectives to describe objects and animals:
The rusty big old wide GREY delivery truck has been stationary along the road for years now.
Too many adjectives in one sentence, right? Well, there’s more!
Moving on, let’s discuss ORIGIN, ETHNICITY, and RELIGION this time. Words like Filipino, Japanese, or Christian fall into this group.
However, instead of putting several adjectives before one noun, let’s hear what a real person might say:
They discovered a decorative century-old brown CHINESE vase in their backyard.
OK, next to origin are material-describing adjectives. Material adjectives are usually nouns that act as adjectives when used to describe other nouns — like metal, paper, and silk.
Considering the sentence above, we can say:
They discovered a decorative century-old brown Chinese PORCELAIN vase in their backyard.
As you may see, we have five adjectives in the sentence. It may sound less appealing, but technically, the sentence is correct and does make sense.
Lastly, we have purpose-describing words in the last place in the order of adjectives. These are the adjectives used to describe something very specific to their kind and use. Moreover, this kind of adjective normally answers the question “What it is used for?”
Some words that are used for describing purposes are cooking, gardening, shopping, etc.
For purpose adjectives, we usually also use a noun as an adjective. “Shopping” is a gerund—a kind of noun ending in -ing.
For instance, we say:
My friend bought a beautiful new red SHOPPING bag yesterday at the mall.
Learning the order of adjectives may seem challenging, but honestly, it is just a piece of cake. Sometimes, especially when we see so many words, we always presume we can’t do it, even if we have not taken the chance to solve the mystery yet.
But now that you know the rule in the order of adjectives, we bet that this will just be so easy for you! Next time, when you encounter multiple adjectives in one sentence, all you need to apply the rule. And that comes with the acronym O-S-A-S-C-O-M-P.