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.