Saturday, 6 June 2015

Order of Adjectives


Adjective Order 

I’m happy to share on my blog the thoughts that crossed my mind and some others’* regarding adjective order before nouns and the responses of Mr Rod Mitchell. I had the privilege of meeting him while sharing my thoughts to discussions topics, raised in ELT Professional Around The World, a community in LinkedIn. He and I got to know each other through our contributions.

What follows is a dialogue between Rod and me on matters related to adjective word order. He was gracious enough to clear my doubts.


Note: * “some others’” refers to members participating in discussions placed in two communities at LinkedIn, where English teachers from all over the world share their thoughts. I have taken this liberty so visitors to my blog can benefit. I express my thanks and gratitude.



Adjective Order
This is an area of English grammar where opinions differ about how to place adjectives in front of a noun. 

Part 1

For instance, is it black, curly hair or curly black hair?  
Most members said either was fine.

Rod Mitchell’s response
Both are correct, but do not mean the same thing. The adjective closest to the noun is the adjective that is most important to the description (and in some cases identification) of the noun. Each additional adjective to the left in a sense describes the nexus (= combined group of words) to the right.

curly black hair : this refers to black hair that is curly.

black curly hair : this refers to curly hair that is black.
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How do we place ‘big’, ‘ugly’ ‘old’, ‘fat’ before ‘man’?

Members differed here.

Rod Mitchell’s response
...adjective order depends on the logic of the communication.

big, fat, ugly, old dog
size – body characteristic – judgement – premodifier (age)

big, ugly, fat, old dog
size –judgement – body characteristic – premodifier (age)

fat, ugly, big, old dog
body characteristic –judgement – size – premodifier (age)

old, big, fat, ugly dog
age – size – body characteristic – judgement—premodifier (judgement)

In speaking, the different word positioning is accompanied by appropriate stress and intonation; hard to represent in writing, of course.
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Do we say ‘a dark, handsome, tall, young man’ or do we place these adjectives in some other order?
Again, members differed. Based on my source, I’d said: a handsome, tall, young, dark man.

a. One member said it should be: a tall, dark, handsome, young man

It’s the juxtaposition of two pairs of adjectives. The pairs themselves follow the normal adj order but when put together they create their own order (the size pair coming first, the opinion pair coming next)

Rod’s response
Not really, no – a [tall [dark [handsome [young man]. It is a hierarchic string, each adjective governing the whole sequence after it and through the intervening steps to the noun itself.

A tall man
A dark man
A handsome man
A young man

Both of these are correct:
A tall, dark, handsome, young man
A tall handsome young dark man

It depends on whether the man is being identified primarily as being “young” or “dark”. The concept of “central adjective” is an attempt at trying to state that an adjective has relatively strong importance in the description of the noun – and this can vary according to how the adjective is being used. Adjectives can be in different categories, as I said earlier (“dark” can be colour, appearance or identity/modifier, for example).

b.
Quirk et al call as central adjectives all those that satisfy their four criteria for adjective status: attributive use, predicate use after the copula seem, premodification by very and comparison.(ibid 404) Now, ‘tall’, ‘dark’, ‘handsome’ and ‘young’ satisfy these criteria. On this premise, all the three can come together. While according to all the formulas cited above indicate that ‘handsome’ should come first, this arrangement of Quirk et al solves ...’s problem of ‘handsome’ appearing before the others.

Rod’s response:
“Handsome” also can vary in its category – appearance, quality, identifying modifier – though when adjectives like that become modifiers, “and” is normally used:

A tall, young, handsome, dark man
A tall young dark and handsome man
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Part 2
I
There are several sources that tell us how to place adjectives, but the lists differ from each other:
1. The one I took from a source (I don’t remember which)

Everyone of these first hundred extremely attractive large oval newly-arrived pink Indian revolving Usha fans
predeterminer determiner ordinal quantifier intensifier epithet size shape age colour
origin purpose classifier noun

Rod Mitchell’s response:
In this example the phrase “everyone of” should not be included in the adjective sequence. The prepositional phrase “of X” refers to “Everyone” as the headword of the whole NP.

everyone of X (X = these first hundred extremely attractive large oval newly-arrived pink Indian revolving Usha fans) 

Determiners also do not belong in the order of adjectives; they also govern the whole NP

these X (X = first hundred extremely attractive large oval newly-arrived pink Indian revolving Usha fans) 

Ordinals, like numbers and so on are in the same general category as articles, and also do not belong in the order of adjectives

first X (X = hundred extremely attractive large oval newly-arrived pink Indian revolving Usha fans)

hundred X (X = extremely attractive large oval newly-arrived pink Indian revolving Usha fans)

This leaves the true string to analyse. The first thing to note is that “extremely” likewise is not part of the adjective string; it is refers specifically to “attractive” (extremely attractive is an adjective phrase):

[extremely-attractive] large oval newly-arrived pink Indian revolving Usha fans

Any adverb and adjectives that modify modifying nouns can come in any position within the string, because it refers to the adjective immediately following (newly-arrived is also an adjective phrase; the hyphen is not necessary) – I also add in another adjective in red to show that the classification is not complete

Attractive, very large, somewhat oval, newly-arrived, bright pink, Central Indian, quickly revolving heavy Usha fans

epithet size shape age colour origin purpose physical characteristic classifier noun

These are strong tendency rules, not hard and fast. The “classifier” (alt. modifying noun, identifying noun) however normally comes just before the noun, because it is integral to the identification of the noun.

2.
Pre-determiner -all, both, half
Determiner – these, the, some, a, his,
Ordinal number / sequence -second, third, next, last
Cardinal number -four five six seven
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Epithet/judgement - beautiful, jovial, smelly
Age/temperature - old, new, cold, hot, young.
Size -enormous, minute, small
Shape -round, square, triangular
Colour – red blue brown
Material - plastic, wooden, steel
Origin / provenance / nationality -English, European
Participle -crooked, laughing, bent
Pre-modifying noun -Sheep, steam, lamp

Note: Here, ‘age’ comes before ‘size’ and ‘shape’ whereas in mine it comes after.

Rod’s response:
The problem with such a list is that adjectives can be in more than one category. “Black” can refer to the colour, but can also be used as a pre-modifier; “curly” as shape or characteristic or material or premodifier. “Old” also can be age, shape, material, premodifier, etc.

The problem with the structural approach (which is where such listing comes from) is that it doesn’t take into account word meaning and function.

3.
British Council’s list 
General opinion + specific opinion + size + shape + age + colour + nationality + material

4. Quantity, Value/opinion, Size, Temperature, Age, Shape, Colour, Origin, Material 
http://www.edufind.com/english-grammar/ordering-multiple-adjectives/

5. Quantity or number, quality/opinion, size, age, shape, color, proper adj (nationality, origin, material), purpose/ qualifier 
www.gingersoftware.com/content/...rules/adjectives/order-of-adjectives/

6. opinion, appearance (size/measure+shape+condition), age, colour, origin, material 
http://www.myenglishteacher.net/adjectivesorder.html

7. determiners, observations, size, shape, age, color, origin, material, qualifier 
http://www.ecenglish.com/learnenglish/lessons/adjective-word-order

8. number, opinion/judgement, size/appearance/length, weight, age, temperature, humidity, shape, colour, nationality/origin, material, purpose, defining adj. 
http://www.esolcourses.com/content/exercises/grammar/adjectives/adjectiveorder/adjectiveorder.html

9. determiner, opinion, size, shape, condition, age, colour, pattern, origin, material,purpose + noun 
http://www.grammar.cl/english/adjectives-word-order.htm

10. opinion adjectives, ‘fact’ adjectives: size, age, shape, colour, origin, material, purpose, 
http://www.tolearnenglish.com/exercises/exercise-english-2/exercise-english-42493.php

11 determiners: articles, possessives, demonstratives, quantifiers, numbers, opinion, fact: size, shape, age, colour/origin/material, purpose 
https://www.englishclub.com/grammar/adjectives-order-before-noun.htm

12. evaluation, size, shape, condition, human propensity, age, color, origin, material, attributive noun 
http://english.stackexchange.com/questions/1155/what-is-the-rule-for-adjective-order

13. here's one that DOES mention flexibility in word order for the first set of adjectives (OPINION, APPEARANCE, AGE): 
http://www.grammar-quizzes.com/adj_order.html

14.
Books 
predeterminer+determiner+ordinal+quantifier+intensifier+epithet+size+shape+age+colour+ 
origin+purpose+classifier+noun 
(source forgotten)

15.
Michael Swan 
The order of adjectives that his examples show is: 
colour, origin, material, purpose 
and “Words for age, shape, size, temperature, other adjectives come before all these:...”

However, he further says:
“... the exact order is too complicated to give practical rules.”

16.
In their A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, Randolph Quirk et al provide this formula for placing adjectives before a noun: 
determinatives + intensifiers (precentral) + adjectives*1 (central) + participles and colour adjectives (postcentral) + denominal*3 adjectives*2 (prehead)

In all these formulas, ‘colour’ comes towards the end of the spectrum rather than otherwise.
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II
Though Swan and Quirk et al suggest an order of adjectives, they say in the same breath:

<<Michael Swan says, “... the exact order is too complicated to give practical rules.”>>

Rod’s response:
What this really means is that ... he has tried to apply a strict structural approach, but has failed.

The approach to apply is a notional-functional and cognitive approach – that is to say – to apply meaning-based principals.

Randolph Quirk et al place ‘central adjectives’ in this order: nonderived, deverbal, denominal. (ibid 1338). And they further say, “... within the class of nonderived adjectives, the order is largely arbitrary.” (ibid 1339).

Rod’s response:
“rather arbitrary” – Quirk also tries to apply a structural approach – and so fails to give an adequate answer.

Rod continued
The problem with such a list is that adjectives can be in more than one category. “Black” can refer to the colour, but can also be used as a pre-modifier; “curly” as shape or characteristic or material or premodifier. “Old” also can be age, shape, material, premodifier, etc.

The problem with the structural approach (which is where such listing comes from) is that it doesn’t take into account word meaning and function.
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III
Thoughts on the suggestions about how to place adjectives
a.
“We consider the ability of functioning both attributively and predicatively to be a central feature of adjectives. Words like hungry and infinite, which satisfy both these criteria (a and b) , are therefore called CENTRAL adjectives.” (ibid 404: 7.3)

Rod’s response:
Pretty well all adjectives can fit into this criteria.

b.
Denoting nationality, ethnic background, eg: Austrian, Midwestern, and denominal adjectives with the meaning ‘consisting of’, ‘involving’, ‘relating to’, eg:experimental, statistical, statutory. In the prehead zone we also find nouns in attributive position. (cf further 17.113ff).
Rod’s response:

Rod’s response:
These types of adjectives are more integral to the identity of the noun, and so tend to come closest to it; however, so can “central” adjectives. Nouns used as identifying modifiers normally come straight before the noun because they are NOT adjectives; they form an “inalienable” bond with the head noun in supplying a unique identity (e.g. a “beer bottle” is a bottle normally only used for beer) – the combination is not a compound, but it has similarities to compounds.

c..
It was a big, fat, beautiful dog. 
It was a beautiful, big, fat dog.

<<I'm wondering whether it's a zooming in and zooming out effect.>>

Rod’s response:
In a way this is a good way of putting it – the adjective next to the noun “zooms” in on the noun, and so zooms us in on what the most important attribute is – the identifying attribute. Each preceding adjective zooms in on the following adjective-noun nexus, but zooms us away from the noun – it is somewhat less important in the description..

d.
<<what I find odd is that most grammarians will forget examples such as 'big, fat, ugly' and 'tall, dark, handsome' and pretend they do not exist or do not mention them in any way.>>

Rod’s response:
I mentioned above the dangers of the Structural Approach – trying to apply structure and forgetting about meaning. More importantly, however, is a tendency for researchers to get so deep into their research that they can trick themselves into not seeing counter evidence (and then often say silly things like “in real life even native speakers make mistakes” and even worse).

e.
..., do you think there are routine listings and then idiomatic forms like big, fat, ugly or high, wide and handsome?

Rod’s response:
Another mistake from researchers who get stuck into a rut – particularly following the structural approach – anything that doesn’t fit into the “model” is claimed to be “idiomatic”, and therefore cannot be explained (they are “collocations”, also a much misused word). Once you start looking at meaning first and foremost, then the reasons for word order become clear.

f.
<<May be people do not always line up adjectives every time the same way. Hence “tall dark handsome young” come in that order, despite seemingly disobeying the prescriptive adjective order. >>

Rod’s response:
Exactly – but the adjective order isn’t “prescriptive” – it is structural.

g.
If I'm not mistaken, linguists list or provide how a language functions and how words are placed in a particular order (the adjective order as indicated by several websites or SVO, for instance) based on an analysis of a huge corpus. But the actual usage is or can be at variance with the recommendations.

Rod’s response:
A good answer – but needs to go beyond into why there seems to be variance (the answer is because the “rules” are wrong and badly analysed in the first place – and that is why different books give different orders).

As you say, the different approaches create confusion, and not only nor non-natives! Unaware native speaker teachers get just as confused and self-doubting.

h.
<<anyway placing adjectives in proper order is a difficult task as said Michael Swan and is arbitrary as suggested by Quirk et al. >>

Rod’s response:
Once we get away from a strict structural approach that ignores word meaning and the real possibility of category variation (each word can be in more than one category) and start focusing in on the word meanings themselves, then things go much more smoothly.

j.
<<Thanks, K R for drawing to our attention the discrepancies between grammarians on the matter of adjective order. Anyone who considers such grammar books prescriptive should take note of this thread. As I learned from Rod last year, grammarians don't seem interested in why a language phenomenon exists or how it came about just that it does and to report it--kind of like journalists today. >>

Rod’s response:
Not exactly what I said – but, yes, traditional grammarians and structuralists are a bit like that. They need to learn how to analyse, pay attention, reassess, and so on.

k.
<<But as a native speaker friend of mine stated in spoken English a prefixed large adjective cluster rarely happens and they might occur in test items.>>

Rod’s response:
Very true – and this goes for all languages. There is only so much that can be kept in “ready access memory”.

<<Is 'a prefixed large adjective cluster' right?>>

Rod’s response:
No – a better term is “preposed”.

<<Is there a final word?>>

Well – I’m not sure what you mean by a “final word”; however, there is one category of adjective phrase none of the sources mention:

A tall, handsome, dark, young stranger wounded in the arm stood at the door.

Adjective phrases that consist of a reduced clause always come AFTER the noun – and are the least important in the string of adjectives.
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Part 3
Clarifications and confirmation needed
I
1.
Your explanation is so simple (placement of adjectives depends on the kind of description the speaker/writer wishes to present) that I wonder why it didn’t strike me; though I felt both to be acceptable, I preferred 1 over 2 because I was glued to a given pattern:
curly    black hair
epithet shape colour
.

Rod’s response:
Glued to a given pattern – this is perhaps the most common error made by all grammar book and textbook writers. You have to develop the ability to step back and to look at it from all different angles, different contexts and so on.

2. a
<<predeterminer determiner ordinal quantifier intensifier | epithet size shape age colour
origin purpose classifier noun>>

Of course, the first five items are not adjectives but I put the whole thing—both the groups—into one large group to show in what order we place all these:
Every one of these first hundred fans
extremely attractive large oval newly-arrived pink Indian revolving Usha fans
 

Rod’s response:
I understood – however, it confuses the issue – it makes the learner assume that they are all part of the same pattern, whereas they aren’t. Also – and even more seriously, intensifier shouldn’t be there, as it is an adjective-focusing thing, not noun focusing (as I said, intensifiers can go anywhere in the adjective string)

Here, ‘extremely’ is not noun-focussing, it only qualifies ‘attractive’ which is an adjective.

b.
Is this list:
epithet size shape age colour origin purpose physical characteristic classifier noun
complete with ALL adjectives or are there any left?
Rod’s response:
It is pretty comprehensive. I can’t right now think of anything else.

c. Rod’s statement:
<<The adjective closest to the noun is the adjective that most important to the description
     (and in some cases identification) of the noun. Each additional adjective to the left in a
     sense describes the nexus (= combined group of words) to the right.>>
<<These are strong tendency rules, not hard and fast.>>

My doubt:
Doesn’t this mean that these adjectives can change places depending on what the speaker wishes the resulting image to be? For instance, aren’t these possible:
    large oval newly-arrived pink Indian revolving attractive Usha fans
    attractive large oval newly-arrived pink Indian revolving Usha fans
    attractive large newly-arrived pink Indian revolving oval Usha fans
    attractive oval newly-arrived pink Indian revolving large Usha fans ?

Rod’s response:
In a general sense, yes, adjectives can be in different orders according to what picture the speaker wants to give. All these are possible.

II
1. a
big, fat, ugly, old dog
size – body characteristic – judgement – premodifier (age)

big, ugly, fat, old dog
size –judgement – body characteristic – premodifier (age)

fat, ugly, big, old dog
body characteristic –judgement – size – premodifier (age)

old, big, fat, ugly dog
age – size – body characteristic – premodifier (judgement)

I take it that the various combinations cited imply that the adjectives are placed on a
  scale—least important to most important in the mind of the speaker/writer.  

Rod’s response:
yes

4. b
Both of these are correct:
A tall, dark, handsome, young man
A tall handsome young dark man

This means other permutations are also possible, again depending on what the speaker is focussing on in order of preference, doesn’t it?

Rod’s response:
Potentially, yes.

5. Rod’s statement:
“Handsome” also can vary in its category – appearance, quality, identifying modifier – though when adjectives like that become modifiers, “and” is normally used:

A tall, young, handsome, dark man
A tall young dark and handsome man

My doubt:
Does this mean that ‘and’ should be used in every group of more than two adjectives?

Rod’s response:
NO, not at all – simply that in certain cases, and is needed to show special emphasis; alt. and is used in adjective strings before the noun to show special emphasis.

5.b
<<(and then often say silly things like “in real life even native speakers make mistakes” and
      even worse).>>

5.c and d
It’s not that native speakers don’t conform to the order grammarians provide, it’s that grammarians don’t recognise people’s order as correct/ the grammarians’ description is faulty.

Rod’s response:
The grammarians description is faulty is the general case.

5.d
I’d used the word ‘prescriptive’ to mean the rule that provides for how adjectives should be placed.

Rod’s response:
That is not the correct term; that is not prescription. Prescription is the statement of a rule or law that must be followed as a matter of agreed convention. The better term is perhaps something to do with patterning – and to do with meaning.

6.
i. The logic for the variations in adjective order is the native speakers vary their descriptions focussing on a given sense they wish to convey. What logic can we provide for SVO/C/A pattern as how native speakers use?

Rod’s response:
Exactly the same logic – the meaning that the speaker wants to convey.

ii. OSV is also possible only when we wish to indicate the importance of the O in the meaning: John I met in the market yesterday, didn’t I?

Rod’s response:
Yes – this is fronting, and not only the object can be fronted. Normally the subject is the most important thing and is first; however, other things can be fronted: 
John I met in the market yesterday, didn’t I?
In the market I met John yesterday, didn’t I?
Yesterday I met John In the market, didn’t I?

7.
Job seekers in India have to sit a competitive exam in English where adjective order is tested as a multiple choice item; this is what made get interested in adjective word order and  I copied into my grammar book the one I quoted in the list in 5 where I presented various listings.

Rod’s response:
This is something a lot of textbooks introduce, because adjective word orders differ from language to language, and so learners can make mistake. It is not only done in India.

Thanks for ‘preposed’ in place of ‘prefixed’.
You’re welcome.

My concluding request: Is there a final word?
What I meant by ‘final word’ was whether there IS a ‘fixed’ order that people (have to) follow.

Rod’s response:
The order you gave above is as fixed as anything else – as long as we keep in mind that it can vary, and that most adjectives do NOT classifiy neatly into one single category.

This is the conclusion I come to:
The final word, so to say, is that all current descriptions that have expressed the order of adjectives are structure-based and that there’s no set adjective word order other than the one that springs from how native speakers express what they intend  (= meaning and function).

Rod’s response:
Yes – in a way. There is a default order (the one you mentioned above), that can be varied according to different focusing.
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