Arranging Multiple Adjectives

We know an adjective is a word that describes or modifies a noun. We also know that in English adjectives almost always precede their noun, unlike languages such as Spanish and French, in which adjectives more commonly can be placed either before or after a noun depending on their function or emphasis.

Understanding adjectives’ position in a sentence, how then do we order them when several are strung together?

If working with only two adjectives, many of us will follow our instincts and preferences. For example, if we write a phrase such as the black, round talisman, we lead with the color to emphasize it. If we write the round, black talisman, we aim to stress its shape.

When we move up to three adjectives before a noun, descriptions start to either lose or seek their place in line. For instance, would we write the Swedish, square, delicious dessert or the delicious, square, Swedish dessert?

The good news is English offers direction on adjective sequencing from multiple sources. They are not uniform in their suggested order of adjectives, but they provide almost the same components with only a few variances in arrangement and labeling.

For our current discussion, we will refer mainly to the preferred guidelines from perhaps the most recognized source, the online Cambridge Dictionary. According to Cambridge, if we are writing several adjectives before a noun without a preferred order for emphasis, we can arrange them as follows based on their function:

1 quantity (one, two, four)

2 opinion (talented, pretty, boring)

3 size (big, small, tall)

4 condition or quality (lean, easy, cold)

5 shape (square, round, flat)

6 age (old, young, ancient)

7 color (black, white, red)

8 pattern (striped, spotted, checked)

9 origin (Swedish, African, Cuban)

10 material (glass, wood, brick)

11 type (boxed, exposed, all-inclusive)

12 purpose (cooking, sleeping, teaching)

(Note that the list was modified by adding quantity [1] and pattern [8], which appeared among other resources but not with Cambridge.)

Whether in writing or speaking, in daily use we will often not read or hear descriptive words strictly in this order; these guidelines are not fixed. Rather, they serve as a road map for communication that sounds more sequentially natural when needed. In addition, using more than three adjectives before a noun is rare and generally not recommended.

With that being said, using the list above, we can form descriptive expressions with some direction.

I would like a piece of the delicious [opinion], square [shape], Swedish [origin] dessert.
Do you still wear those old [age] white [color] shoes?
Those two [quantity] tall [size], lean [physical quality] men work for the firm.
The professor’s four [quantity] old [age], boxed [type] teaching [purpose] files are sure to aid the defense.

For many of us, our ear for language and our intentions for emphasis will continue to inform how we arrange descriptive words. Should we be in doubt, we can simply refer to the list and help our adjectives find a sense of proper place.

Are We Hyphenating Well?

The proper use of good and well in writing is a common grammatical topic. For many, the distinction can be uncertain.

An equally slippery subject is whether to hyphenate well when it helps describe a noun. For example, do we write a well-dressed man or a well dressed man?

Because well here is an adverb that modifies dressed, some might say not to punctuate the compound description; this would align with the guideline that omits punctuation from adverbial modifiers ending in -ly: a thoroughly informed spokesperson. Some might also believe that only compounded adjectives would be hyphenated: bluish-green eyes.

As a general rule, a compound adjective can include an adverb. The compound is often hyphenated before a noun but not after a noun (a well-dressed man, the man is well dressed). Well also would not be hyphenated when compounded with other adverbial modifiers, such as very (a very well dressed man).

At the same time, further investigation reveals that not all style authorities agree on this subject. The Associated Press Stylebook advises us to hyphenate well in a compound modifier both when it precedes a noun and when the compound follows the verb to be: a well-dressed man, the man is well-dressed.

AP’s rationale is that retaining the hyphen in compound modifiers after the noun helps avoid confusion. For example, if the hyphen is omitted in a statement such as he is a little known man, the reader might interpret it as meaning he is a known man who is little. Adding the hyphen clarifies: little-known man tells us he is one few people know. Writing the man is well-dressed remains consistent with AP’s chosen style.

The Chicago Manual of Style, on the other hand, doesn’t concur with this stance. Its editors find hyphenation unnecessary when a compound modifier with well follows a noun, including compounds that might be hyphenated in dictionaries. It would therefore encourage us to write the man is well dressed.

Other style hawks assert that certain compounds with well should retain their hyphens in all positions because they are single concepts or standard expressions. These individuals would cite examples such as well-appointed, well-founded, well-connected, and well-intentioned; to them, each compound’s meaning differs from its unmodified adjective (appointed, founded, connected, intentioned), making well vital to clarity.

By this reasoning, these compound concepts or expressions would retain their hyphen even when well is modified by another adverb such as very: a very well-appointed man.

With all this considered, we still might ask ourselves: When do we truly need to hyphenate? The experts don’t agree and even seemingly reliable guidelines can have exceptions. The answer is that rules of hyphenation for well are not engraved in stone.

As with anything else in our writing, clarity is king. If a hyphen makes our meanings clearer, we keep it; otherwise, we leave it out as nonessential. Consistency matters as well. As long as we choose a style and stick to it, our usage will help sustain our writing rather than distract from it.

Sending Out the APB on Made-Up Words

Estimates of English’s total word count vary, but linguists agree the number ranks near the top of the world’s vocabularies. Some sources cite English as having as many as 300,000 distinctly usable words.

With so many residents in a vernacular, impostors posing as real words are bound to slip in. They start as mistakes but last long enough to wiggle into pockets of speech. Before long, they spread out, gaining confidence and popularity until they set their sights on the real prize: placement in a dictionary.

While casual conversation provides the most refuge for these con artists, their common usage still often lets them cross into composition’s more-managed domain.

Here are a few of those made-up words to remain on the watch for:

Imposter: administrate (v) / Real Word: administer

Imposter: participator (n) / Real Word: participant

Imposter: commentate (v) / Real Word: comment

Imposter: preventative (adj) / Real Word: preventive

Imposter: orientate (v) / Real Word: orient

Imposter: supposably (adj, adv) / Real Word: supposedly

Imposter: conversate (v) / Real Word: converse

Imposter: undoutably (adj, adv) / Real Word: undoubtedly

Imposter: irregardless (adj, adv) / Real Word: regardless

Imposter: vice-a-versa (adv) / Real Word: vice versa

Imposter: exploitive (adj) / Real Word: exploitative

Imposter: whole nother (adj) / Real Words: another, whole other

Imposter: firstly (secondly, thirdly, etc.) (adv) / Real Word: first (second, third, etc.)

Imposter: incentivize (v) / Real Words: encourage, motivate, reward

A few of these invaders, such as irregardless and preventative, have already cleared the fence, crossed their covert tunnels and arrived safely in dictionaries. That alone does not validate them, nor does it mean we should permit them into our writing.

You also probably noted several made-up words in the list include the suffix -ate. This is a common ploy some words will use to create more versions of themselves.

The suffix -ize operates much the same way. In addition to incentivize, keep an eye on words such as actualize, collectivize, intellectualize and normalize. Some words, such as finalize, prioritize, memorize and ostracize, need their three-letter caboose to deliver their meaning, but most -ize words are pitching tents where houses are built.

Made-up words present another call for us to lead the way in upholding concise, grammatical writing. By remaining vigilant, we can help halt the advance of the pretenders.