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Ordering of adjectives

5.8 The Ordering of Adjectives

When two or more adjectives come before a noun, their relative order is fixed to a certain degree. This means, for instance, that while complex mathematical studies is grammatically acceptable, mathematical complex studies is less so. Similarly:   



a huge red bomber

~*a red huge bomber 

a long narrow road

~*a narrow long road 

the lovely little black Japanese box 

~*the Japanese black little lovely box



Here we will discuss some of the most common sequences which occur, though these should not be seen as ordering rules. Counter examples can often be found quite easily.   

Central adjectives, as we saw earlier, are adjectives which fulfil all the criteria for the adjective class. In this sense, they are more "adjectival" than, say, denominal adjectives, which also have some of the properties of nouns.   

This distinction has some significance in the ordering of adjectives. In general, the more adjectival a word is, the farther from the noun it will be. Conversely, the less adjectival it is (the more nominal), the nearer to the noun it will be. The relative order of these adjective types, then, is:   

Sequence (1): CENTRAL -- DENOMINAL -- NOUN  

This is the ordering found in complex mathematical studies, for instance, and also in the following examples:  

expensive Russian dolls  
heavy woollen clothes  
huge polar bears 

Colour adjectives are also central adjectives, but if they co-occur with another central adjective, they come after it:  

Sequence (2): CENTRAL -- COLOUR -- NOUN  

expensive green dolls  
heavy black clothes  
huge white bears 

and before denominal adjectives:  

Sequence (3): COLOUR -- DENOMINAL -- NOUN   

green Russian dolls  
black woollen clothes   
white polar bears  

Participial adjectives also follow central adjectives:  


expensive carved Russian dolls  
heavy knitted woollen clothes  
huge dancing polar bears 

 (1) - (4) account for many sequences of up to three adjectives, in which each adjective is a different type. In practice it is rare to find more than three attributive adjectives together, especially if they are all different types. However, such a sequence may occur:   

certain expensive green Russian dolls 

Here the sequence is:  


Non-gradable adjectives, in fact, are always first in an adjective sequence. Here are some more examples:   

Sequence (5a): NON-GRADABLE -- CENTRAL -- NOUN  

certain difficult problems 


sheer unadulterated nonsense 

Sequence (5c): NON-GRADABLE -- DENOMINAL -- NOUN   

major medical advances 

So far we have looked at sequences in which each adjective is a different type. However, we very often find adjectives of the same type occurring together:   

big old buildings   
beautiful little flowers  
rich young people  

Here all the adjectives are central adjectives, and in sequences like these it is much more difficult to determine the general principles governing their order. Several schemes have been proposed, though none is completely satisfactory or comprehensive.  

The ordering of adjectives is influenced to some degree by the presence of premodification. If one or more of the adjectives in a sequence is premodified, say, by very, then it generally comes at the start of the sequence.   

The laryngograph provides us with a very accurate non-invasive physical measure of voice [S2A-056-95] 

It would be unusual, perhaps, to find very accurate elsewhere in this sequence:   

?The laryngograph provides us with a non-invasive very accurate physical measure of voice   

?The laryngograph provides us with a non-invasive physical very accurate measure of voice 

Conversely, adjective order restricts the degree to which attributive adjectives may be premodified. Consider the following:   

a wealthy young businessman  
a very wealthy young businessman 

We cannot modify young in this example, while keeping wealthy and young in the same relative order:  

*a wealthy very young businessman 

Nor can we move young to the first position and modify it there, while retaining the same degree of acceptability:  

?a very young wealthy businessman

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