Bite-sized knowledge for the hungrily curious
Oct19
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Congratulations to The Electric Mayhem on winning our quiz last night!

Why do we say “big brown dog” instead of “brown big dog”?

The Answer

There is a standard order for adjectives in the English language that we all use without realizing it.

We all seem to instinctively know what order to put adjectives in, but few of us know why. As noted in a viral tweet from 2016, Matthew Andreson shares an excerpt from a book The Elements of Eloquence: How to Turn the Perfect English Phrase by Mark Forsyth, which explains that the proper order of adjectives is opinion-size-age-shape-colour-origin-material-purpose.

The Cambridge Dictionary provides a more detailed definition of the correct order.

  1. opinion (e.g. unusual, lovely)
  2. size (e.g. big, tall)
  3. physical quality (e.g. thin, rough)
  4. shape (e.g. round, square)
  5. age (e.g. old, youthful)
  6. colour (e.g. blue, pink)
  7. origin (e.g. Dutch, Japanese)
  8. material (e.g. metal, plastic)
  9. type (e.g. four-sided, U-shaped)
  10. purpose (e.g. cleaning, cooking)

Here are some invented examples of longer adjective phrases. A noun phrase which included all these types would be extremely rare.

She was a 1beautiful, 2tall, 3thin, 5young, 6black-haired, 7Scottish woman.

What an 1amazing, 2little, 5old, 7Chinese cup and saucer!

Adjectives: order – English Grammar Today – Cambridge Dictionary

What’s amazing here is that we seem to intuitively know this order. Imagine that second sentence phrased as “What a Chinese old little amazing cup and saucer!”. The person you’re speaking to would start checking to see if you exhibiting any of the other signs of a stroke.

I don’t recall learning any of this in grammar class. Perhaps, we pick this up naturally by listening to the way others speak as we’re growing up. In a Quartz article by Cassie Werber from 2016, she explains that those who are learning English as a second language are specifically taught this order. Otherwise, that black-haired, thin, beautiful, tall, Scottish (or perhaps French), young woman would be really hard to understand.

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