The Royal Order of Adjectives

By Jacquelyn Landis

Have you ever wondered why we instinctively say “the shiny new red car” and not “the red new shiny car”? The reason is that there is a royal order for adjectives, and most native English speakers learn to use it as we’re forming our first complete sentences.

Adjectives fall into categories, and those categories comprise the royal order:

Determiner (articles and other limiters: the book, your car)

Observation or opinion (a genuine fraud, an interesting book, an expensive watch)

Size and Shape (tiny, fat, square)

Age (young, old, new)

Color (blue, sea-green)

Origin (American, Chinese)

Material (describing what something is made of: silk, copper, wooden)

Qualifier (final adjective, often an integral part of the noun: vacation resort, wedding dress, race car)

Typically, writers know better than to string together more than two or three adjectives at a time, and we don’t seem to struggle too much in getter their order straight. Where it gets confusing is in deciding when to use commas to separate a string of adjectives.

You probably already know that equal adjectives should be separated by commas, as in this example:

The singer wore a beaded, feathered costume.

“Beaded” and “feathered” are equal adjectives, ones that belong to the same category (material) in the royal order. You could switch their position, and the rhythm of the sentence would still be correct.

However, when you create a string of adjectives, be mindful of both their proper order and of the fact that you needn’t use commas to separate adjectives of a different category.

The singer wore an antique purple beaded, feathered costume.

Only one comma is necessary in the above sentence because “beaded” and “feathered” are the only adjectives belonging to the same category.

If you’re ever in doubt about where to place commas in a string of adjectives, refer to the royal order. It’ll be your faithful guide.

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14 Responses to “The Royal Order of Adjectives”

  • Jon

    It does raise the question “Why is it called the Royal Order of Adjectives?”

    To which monarch can we attribute this grammatical rule?

    Presumably it’s a British monarch – unless it’s a convention adopted from some other monarchy. Do other languages have the same kind of conventions?

    In French some adjectives come before the noun, others after, if I remember rightly…

  • Cid

    Under the Qualifier topic, shouldn’t the wording be “getting” instead of “getter”?

  • Autumn

    Very helpful – I was just wrestling with this the other night.

    Thanks for the post!

  • Charity

    @ Jon:

    I remember being taught the “BAGS” mnemonic in French class… We were told that adjectives come after the noun in French, except when they are descriptors of beauty, age, goodness, or size. I don’t know how accurate this is, but it was certainly easy to remember and apply.

  • Mary Hodges

    Interesting. I’d never heard of the “Royal Order” but just put adjectives in the order that sounded right to me.
    You can of course play around and change the order for emphasis or to alter the meaning. For example:
    An old lady’s black bike.
    An old black lady’s bike.
    A black old lady’s bike.
    A lady’s old black bike.
    A black lady’s old bike.
    depending on whether it is the lady or the bike or both that is old or black.
    The only combination that sounds wrong to me is
    A lady’s black old bike.

    (I know that the usual usage is “ladies’ bike” to refer to a bike without a crossbar, but it looked wrong here!)

  • Pedro

    When I learned English, they showed me a video that taught us learners how to remember this. It used the word OPSHACOM. I never forgot it.

    O: opinion
    SH: shape
    A: age
    C: color
    O: origin
    M: material

    Whenever in doubt, remember: OPSHACOM!

  • kirby

    thanks it was hard searching,this website is great!

  • kalqlate

    Mary Hodges said:

    “Interesting. I’d never heard of the “Royal Order” but just put adjectives in the order that sounded right to me.”

    Yes, as children, most native English speakers learn the rules through constant observation and use. However, in what case of her examples, “what sounded right” was wrong.

    On this excellent page,

    http://grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/grammar/adjectives.htm,

    under the title,

    The Order of Adjectives in a Series,

    in the table, you will see that age is always written before color.

    Therefore, Mary Hodges example of…

    A black old lady’s bike.

    …is incorrect for two reasons:

    (1) according to the chart, color should appear after age,

    (2) the meaning of the sentence is ambiguous because it can be equally interpreted as:

    A (black) (old lady’s) bike. = An (old lady’s) (black) bike.

    or

    An (old black lady’s) bike.

    Following and applying the Royal Order of Adjectives would avoid such ambiguities and possible misinterpretations.

  • Mike

    I was looking for something on the order of adjectives. It is something I just instinctively know (as you mentioned) so I had to look this stuff up for teaching. The adverb order I knew, but I had no clear explanation for the adjectives ready. Grammar is interesting. We need to start bringing it back into the schools.

  • Michael

    When I began to teach English as a second (third or fourth) language to adults, I discovered many grammar rules that I used with ease but did not recall being taught myself. This Royal Order falls into that category. I find it helpful to see it articulated. Thanks!

  • Dale A. Wood

    Another wise writer stated that in English, adjectives should be applied from the more general to the more specific.
    Got that? We are “closing in” on the “target” like a heat-seeking missile.

    I wrote this example: An ancient Egyptian pharaoh’s tomb.
    “an” is more general than “ancient”
    “ancient” is more general than “Egyptian”
    “Egyptian” is more general than “pharaoh’s”.

    So, go “walk like an Egyptian” – back in the time of the pharaohs!
    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    @kirby and all the rest: “Web site”, because the World Wide Web is a proper noun, hence “Web” is capitalized in this usage.
    Likewise for Web browser, Web host, Web router, Web server, Web technology, and Web user.

    It is all pretty simple once you remember “World Wide Web”.
    The “Internet” is also a proper noun, and it shoud be, considering the huge amount of effort by electrical engineers, computer scientists, and technicians that went into developing and producing it.
    D.A.W.

  • Tarik Toulan

    This is a thorough reference sheet about the order of adjectives.

    Thank you!

  • Rory

    Determiners and the category you have chosen to call ‘qualifiers’ are not adjectives–this can be shown with a simple linguistic substitution test.

    We can say:

    It’s a small dog. The dog is small.

    She’s an old lady. The lady is old.

    We can’t say:

    It’s a race car. The car is race.

    It’s a wedding dress. The dress is wedding.

    Things like ‘race car’ and ‘wedding dress’ are compound nouns, not adjective-noun combinations.

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