Adjective Word Order



Adjective Word Order by NJZ
The following response is based on the claim that there is a specific adjective word order, and that if we do not comply with this word order, the sentence – in the words of the website we checked but I can’t remember which – “fails”. The response will be organized as such: my understanding of the original problem and the conditions for why a sentence “fails”; why such a claim has been made and why it continues to be made; finally, why I say that such a claim is incorrect, or at least for us fluent speakers of English, not very useful. The main argument is that the recommended order, while valid and useful for certain situations, is often broken or inverted without affecting people’s opinions of the correctness of a sentence.
            The claim seems to imply that in any sentences where a noun is modified by a string of adjectives, there is a specific order in which to organize different adjectives. For example, as many websites claim, the following order is preferred:
Opinion
Size
Age
Color
Nationality
Material
ugly
short
new
red
American
wool
cheap
small
used
yellow
Korean
wood
boring
fat
old
brown
Japanese
plastic
(Source: http://www.johnsesl.com/templates/grammar/adjorder.php)
Joanna’s claim is that there is a “correct” word order that we should follow i.e. that if we do not follow this order, the sentence “fails” and it is not considered correct. A common understanding of what makes a sentence successful, depends on its grammaticality, and the standard for what makes a grammatical sentence is usually based on whether or not it is easily understood.
            The reason why such a claim would be seen as valid is simple: arranging the adjectives as such helps to convey the semantic (meaning) relationship between adjective and the noun. As you can see from the table, the adjectives intrinsic to the noun (Nationality; colour etc) are adjectives more readily associated with the noun. Other modifiers like size and age are less associated with the noun, and thus are placed further away. Finally, opinions like “ugly” convey more of the speaker’s judgement of the noun, rather than properties inherent to the noun itself. The more debatable an adjective is – it might not be ugly to someone else; it might not be short compared with something shorter; it might be old to you but to someone else it’s considered nearly brand new – the less readily it is identified with the noun it modifies. Properties like red or American are so closely related to the object that if we change any of those properties, it could well easily refer to a completely different object e.g. a red jacket versus a yellow jacket.
            This is an important point to consider when trying to communicate effectively. For many native speakers, this word arrangement comes naturally. And that is the reason why many websites push forward such opinions: it facilitates communication by making it easier to form a mental image of the object. It is a representational matter, and also a matter of style and habit. It “sounds” more correct, hence it is recommended.
            A look at the type of websites that promote this would give a clue to the audience they are targeting: the first page results consist largely of English as a Second Language (ESL) websites. Joanna herself heard this from her PSLE teacher, but not the teachers that came after. This is reason enough to believe such a generalisation is for the usefulness of teaching and learning for students who have yet to grasp the nuances of the English language i.e. 12 year-olds and ESL learners. And in many cases, this is true – especially so when the listener has no earlier impression of what the speaker is talking about: in a PSLE composition when the writer is introducing his “beautiful, shiny, fire-engine-red Italian Ferrari”, for example.
            Adjective use is often in context-dependent sentences, as in the context of a conversation, or the context of an essay, or the context of a story. As mentioned above, where the receiver has no prior idea of the subject of the discussion, such a method will aid effective communication. However, such a generalisation breaks down easily in every day conversation, where most sentences constructed get their meaning from the context they are in. For example”
Assuming A has many, many cars:
A: I like my red car.
B: Which?
A: The Italian one.
            In this conversation, “one” is a substitute for “red car”. When B asks A which “one”, B is asking A which red car he likes. In his reply, A states, “The Italian one”, which is to say, “the Italian red car”. Of course, to say “The Italian red car” would sound quite awkward (hence the need for the rules mentioned earlier), but it does not in any way distort the meaning, and it is completely grammatical. It might sound “strange” to some people, but if A were to say “The Italian red car” in his reply, it would still be completely acceptable. To reply with “The red Italian car” on the other hand, distracts B from the most important part of the reply, “Italian”, by placing it in the middle of the phrase, and can hence be considered a less effective way of communicating.
            While it is easy to differentiate opinion from intrinsic properties of an object, ambiguities arise when we try to decide the order within “intrinsic” and “extrinsic” properties. Should “intrinsicness” be the rule when we decide whether an adjective should come before another, and if so, how do we decide this “intrinsicness”?
            Does Singapore have a warm and wet climate or a wet and warm climate? Does John have a shiny brand-new car, or a brand-new shiny car? How do we decide whether my student is an intelligent, beautiful girl; or is she a beautiful, intelligent girl? Does it make a difference, and is one phrase more “correct” than the other? Such judgements can be based on very personal opinions. One person might associate “brown” (colour) more readily with a bear than “furry” (texture, material) whilst others might do the opposite.
            This absence of a systematic hierarchy of adjectives is obvious when we change the structure of the sentence. Instead of saying “the pretty, smart, young, American girl”, we could switch it around and say “the girl who is pretty, smart, young and American” and you can see that it does not matter what order you put the adjectives, the sentences does not sound more or less correct.
The girl who is smart, young, American and pretty
The girl who is American, young, smart and pretty
The girl who is young, American, pretty and smart etc
            There is nothing inherent in adjectives to want to arrange them in a specific way. All of the above sentences sound as correct as each other; none of them are grammatically wrong, and certainly none of them sound particularly weird. Long rambling lists of adjectives are probably more suited for casual conversation than a business proposal; but again, this is a matter of habit and style, not about grammar.
            So when we are told that we should arrange adjectives a certain way, it is mostly due to word-meaning associations between the adjective and the noun, not because there exists a hard and fast rule about which adjectives must come before which, and such associations are ambiguous, and lack a systematic hierarchical order. Adjective word order is also highly-dependent on the context and topic of the sentence (Italian red car versus red Italian car); depending on the purpose and audience of the sentence, a sentence that might sound awkward standing alone will actually sound more “correct”.
            Is there a good way of arranging adjectives? Yes, probably whichever facilitates effective communication. Is there a “correct” way to do so, otherwise the sentence “fails”? As explained, very unlikely. In most cases, it does not matter which order the adjectives appear, they all have equal standing, and the meanings placed on the noun by the adjectives all apply as fully at the back of the phrase as they are in front. Adjective word order does not change the meaning of the sentence, and it certainly does not affect the grammaticality of a sentence.
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