From the perspective of our hapless English-learning friends around the globe, the order in which we place our adjectives seems completely arbitrary. How is it that a big red rubber ball could sound and feel so perfect to a native speaker of English, while a rubber red big ball is so comically, tragically wrong?
- A pulsing shiny bright tiny piece of glitter is sparkling on your nose.
- I just bought handmade brown two acoustic expensive classical beautiful guitars.
As languages evolve over time, they develop certain conventions that serve as the norm for their speakers. Native English speakers often just know when something sounds wrong, even if they may not know that they’re adhering to a rule — in this situation, a rule about the order of adjectives — and they can’t name it. In English, adjectives appear in the following order: quantity (one), quality (good), size (small), age (new), shape (square), color (cobalt), origin (Austrian), material (bamboo), and qualifier (borrowed) plus noun (jewelry box). You have one good small new square cobalt Austrian bamboo borrowed jewelry box. Even if we remove half of these categories, they appear in the same order: It’s a small square bamboo jewelry box.
MORE TO KNOW
If you use more than three or four adjectives, your readers will likely roll their eyes at your purple prose. Of all the stealthy, bizarre rules to innately understand in one’s native language, this has to be one of the most arcane.