Adjectives in English must always be used in a very precise order. And even though none of us has officially learned this rule, we somehow all know to follow it, and that things seem very wrong whenever it’s broken.
Life is full of strange rules that we know but can’t say how. English grammar is too. One of the most perplexing rules--at least to non-native English speakers--is the complex rule that governs the precise order in which adjectives must be used. In 2016, The New York Times’ European culture editor Matthew Anderson spelled it out in a tweet that’s been re-tweeted more than 52,000 times:
Things native English speakers know, but don’t know we know: pic.twitter.com/Ex0Ui9oBSL-- Matthew Anderson (@MattAndersonNYT) September 3, 2016
Anderson is quoting Mark Forsyth's book The Elements of Eloquence, and Forsyth lays out the rule beautifully with the example of a “lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife.” Think about it: You cannot move the order of those adjectives at all without having the sentence seem completely wrong. “Lovely little silver French green whittling old knife?” That sounds like word salad--which is a well-known symptom of mental illness.
Since we all seem to know this rule by instinct, it would seem to be cut and dried, but it isn't quite. Forsyth says there are eight types of adjectives, which should be used in this order:
But then, the Cambridge Dictionary--which certainly seems like an authoritative source--offers a list of ten types of adjectives in a slightly different order:
3. Physical quality
So, according to Cambridge, it should be a “lovely little rectangular old green French silver whittling knife,” which seems completely wrong to me. My instincts say “old” should come before “rectangular,” not the other way around. To further complicate matters, Cambridge lists “U-shaped” as an example of type, rather than shape as you might have expected.
In other words, even this supposedly ironclad rule that we all seem to know by instinct is tangled up and subject to debate. And don’t even get me started on what to do if you have two adjectives of the same type, say a “lovely valuable little old green French silver whittling knife.” Or when and whether you should use a comma, or the word “and.”
As someone with an advanced degree in English, an amateur linguist, and a lifelong professional writer, my best advice is this: When it comes to adjective order, you should probably follow your instincts. And you should definitely not have ten, eight, or even four adjectives piled up ahead of a noun. Adding adjectives to your sentences should be like adding spices to your cooking: Use them thoughtfully, sparingly, and when they'll have the most impact. Not only will that make your writing better, it will save you from having to worry so much about putting adjectives in the right order.