Adjective categories and their orders

Adjectives are the descriptive words that "modify" nouns. They describe the attributes of the noun with which they’re associated. Usually adjectives in English precede the nouns they modify, and these are the ones we'll discuss here. We'll also discuss when to use a comma to separate our adjectives.

If you have grown up speaking English, you may have noticed a natural tendency to place different descriptive words in a particular order: "three cute kittens," for example, wouldn't be re-ordered "cute three kittens." Why not? Whether or not we were aware that there was a rule for the ordering of adjectives, we may have grown accustomed to a particular order. It just "feels" right.

But yes, there is a rule, and here is the order (in simplified form). (I should note that different sources specify varying order for the items listed in 2, 3, 4, and 5, below; other source categories may be less granular and use fewer categories.)

1. First come the articles (a, an, the); possessive pronouns (your, their); demonstrative pronouns (these, those, this, that); and numbers and other expressions of quantity (five, some). These are the "determiners," and will not be followed by a comma.

2. Opinions, attitudes, observations (lovely, odd)

3. Size (tiny, huge, short)

4. Physical quality (smooth, lumpy, burly)

5. Shape (triangular, square, round)

6. Age (young, new, middle-aged)

7. Color (red, blue, yellow)

8. Origin/National origin (Armenian, Turkish)

9. Material (oak, tin)

10. Type (three-legged)

11. Purpose or qualifier: a noun used as an adjective, or an "-ing" adjective (bird dog, cooking pot, washing machine)

We don't use commas in this example:
Sue came home from the flea market dragging a large iron three-legged cooking pot.
Why not?
Each adjective belongs to a different category:
(a) "large" describes the size, our category # 3.
(b) "iron" describes the material, our category # 9.
(c) "cooking" describes the purpose or qualifier, our category # 11.

To comma or not to comma

In short, if the adjectives fall within the same category (coordinate adjectives), use a comma between them.

Do not use commas between cumulative adjectives - those in different categories. (But then, examples in some sources do place commas between cumulative adjectives.)

So, here's the test:
If ...
(a) the order of the adjectives could be reversed and still make sense;
(b) the adjectives could be separated with "and" and sound right;
(c) all variations of adjective order would deliver the same message,
then treat them as coordinate adjectives and separate them with commas.

Do not use a comma after the determiner. Remember, the determiners, which are listed in category 1 above, are these:
.articles (a, an, the);
.possessive pronouns (your, their);
.demonstrative pronouns (these, those, this, that);
.numbers and other expressions of quantity (five, some)

Sue's morning was spent in a hot, sweaty cooking lesson.

You could say sweaty, hot cooking lesson and hot and sweaty cooking lesson, but you wouldn't say sweaty, cooking, hot lesson. So a comma is used between sweaty and hot, but not between hot and cooking.

In our "three cute kittens" example, you wouldn't say three and cute kittens, so it fails the coordinate test. Besides, a comma is not used after a number or quantity.

Does this help?

I won't get into the Oxford comma here; we'll save that for another day....but I always use them!

1 Comment


  • Justin  
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