A nice, relaxing bath (Adjective order)

by Kate Woodford​​​
When we want to describe something, one adjective sometimes just isn’t enough! There may be two – or even three – things we want to say about something or someone. What order, then, do we put these two or three adjectives in? Consider the following:

He’s such a sweet little boy!

She seemed like a nice, polite girl.

It’s a really lovely, bright shade of blue.

There was a horrible, stale smell in there.

Notice the adjectives that are used first in each of these sentences – sweet, nice, lovely, horrible. They are all subjective descriptions – words that show our feelings or opinions about something. They do not actually tell us any precise facts about the boy, the girl, the shade of blue or the smell. They don’t, for example, tell us how big the children are or anything about the precise qualities of the shade of blue or the smell. These subjective adjectives, then, are the ones that go first. In other words, whatever your first feeling or opinion about something or someone, (Are they nice, nasty, gorgeous, unpleasant, etc.?), say this first!

Another way of thinking about this is that adjectives that are fairly general – that we can use to describe almost anything, (people, things, experiences, etc.) – go first.

There was a lovely, calm atmosphere.

It had a nasty, bitter taste.

It’s a nice, cosy room.

It was an awful, depressing film.

In all of these sentences, the second adjectives, (calm, bitter, cosy, depressing), are used for describing a much smaller range of nouns than the first, (lovely, nasty, nice, awful). This, then, is another useful rule to keep in mind – general adjectives before precise adjectives.

Every now and then, we want to use several precise, factual adjectives to describe something. Imagine, for example, that we are describing an item we have lost in a public place. We might want to say how big something is, what shape it is, what colour it is, etc. When native speakers of English do this, they often, more or less, follow a particular order that depends on the type of adjective. It is as follows:







That order, (which most native speakers of English are probably not even aware of), results in sentences like this:

It’s a small, rectangular, wooden box.

She’s bought a gorgeous, light-brown, Swedish sofa.

a stylish, black, woollen coat

Rather than trying to learn the order in which adjectives go, it may help to remember a few phrases such as these which illustrate the order.







12 thoughts on “A nice, relaxing bath (Adjective order)

  1. Sergio Rodrigues

    I understand this rule or order is more commomly used in writen English rather than in a dayly conversation. Is that right?

  2. Cristina Castro

    The explanation is clear, however, I’d like you to comment something on the use of commas. In your examples bellow both have two adjectives but in one sentences are separated by commas and not in the other.

    He’s such a sweet little boy!

    She seemed like a nice, polite girl.

    Could you give us a rule to know when it’s necessary to use commas? Is there any change in meaning?
    thank you.

    1. Hanry

      When the two adjectives are independent of each other, you may use a comma. Otherwise, you must omit the comma. A good rule of thumb that I heard was “Add the word ‘and.'” For example:

      He’s such a sweet and little boy! (Wrong.)

      She seemed like such a nice and polite girl. (OK)

      The problem is because the comma signifies you to parse each adjective separately. So “sweet, little boy” means a boy that’s little and sweet, while “sweet little boy” really means a little boy that’s sweet.

  3. Pingback: Adjectives (Word Class) | ELT Infodump

  4. Hanry

    Interesting insight on intuitive word order. It probably comes from a similar mechanism as the “general to specific,” I would suppose?

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