Q&A: The natural order of things like adjectives

Each week, we chat about the quirks & anomalies of the English language. And this one moves in an orderly fashion for a change…

Q: Hello AWC, we had a question recently from Marianne.
A: Hello Marianne.

Q: Her grammar gripe goes something like this: “Why do we say ‘the little red shoes’ instead of ‘the red little shoes’ and how do I know how to order these descriptive words when using them in a sentence?”
A: Great question!

Q: So, is there a rule here?
A: There certainly is. In fact, there is a certain order that you follow when lumping a whole bunch of adjectives together.

Q: Let me guess, it’s in order of the length of the word?
A: No.

Q: How about the order each word would score in Scrabble?
A: Triple-word score or general play?

Q: Either.
A: No.

Q: Maybe it’s in order of which word would be assigned to a member of the seven von Trapp children from Sound of Music?
A: What is going ON in your brain?

Q: Sorry, I did get carried away there.
A: Anyway, you were partly right about the von Trapps – there are indeed seven groups that you can divide adjectives into.

Q: Is one of them Liesl?
A: No.

Q: No, of course not. That would only be if there were 16, going on 17 different groups…
A: The English language has a system for keeping these seven groups in the right order. It goes like this: opinion, size, age, shape, colour, origin, material/type.

Q: Is that the order?
A: Yes.

Q: Not even a Kurt or Brigitta?
A: No.

Q: So why THIS order?
A: Well, that’s like asking why J comes before K or W before X.

Q: So why does J come bef–
A: Please don’t. It’s just the order that was decided upon.

Q: Let’s try it out then. Marianne had “little red shoes”…
A: So that would be size before colour.

Q: And that movie, My Big Fat Greek Wedding?
A: Size, shape, origin.

Q: Wow, it actually works.
A: It sure does. Which we’ll admit is a surprise for the English language. But without this decided-upon hierarchy for adjectives, describing things would be a chaotic mess.

Q: You mean, like how English usually is then?
A: We kind of walked right into that one…

Q: Okay, so for your big finale, can you give me a Sound of Music-themed example that uses them ALL?
A: Sure, but only because it’s one of your favourite things.

Q: Off you go then.
A: The Captain recoiled in horror at the outfits Maria made for the children out of horrible big old rectangular green Austrian linen curtains. Even for 1965 masquerading as 1939, they were quite possibly the ugliest thing he’d ever se–

Q: Okay okay, I get it. Well done, you.
A: And that’s the rule. Follow that order and you won’t go wrong.

Q: Nice to get a Q&A so neatly wrapped up like that.
A: You’d almost say it’s like a brown paper package, tied up with string…

Q: I hate you.

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