Mastering adjectives is essential to creating vivid descriptions. But why stop at using just one adjective when you can string several together?
Simply put, many people are hesitant to use multiple adjectives for fear of making mistakes. Nevertheless, the technique is not that complicated, and learning the following rules for combining multiple adjectives will help you accurately communicate detailed ideas in English – whether speaking or writing.
But First, a Few Examples:
Let’s say you want to describe your childhood teddy bear. If your teddy bear resembles the one found in the photo above, you might describe it as a cuddly oversized white teddy bear. However, teddy bears come in all different forms, and your own teddy bear may look quite different. Perhaps your teddy bear looks more like one of the following:
- A cute, fluffy brown teddy bear.
- A smooth pink satin teddy bear.
- A floppy antique tan teddy bear.
- A dirty small yellow and blue striped teddy bear.
- A collectible 1902 Steiff teddy bear.
- A sad pot-bellied old grey suede teddy bear.
- A soft and fuzzy black Italian teddy bear.
Did each of the above descriptions bring to your mind a very different looking teddy bear? The use of multiple adjectives can assist in understanding not just the size, shape or age of a noun, but also the color, origin or material.
Essentially, that is all there is to mastering multiple modifiers – identifying an adjective’s “category” and then arranging the categories into their proper grammatical order.
Nine Categories for Proper Adjective Order:
1. Determiners – Determiners comprise four subcategories and include “articles” (a, an, the), “possessives” (mine, yours, his, hers, its, theirs, ours) “quantity” (two, ten, several, a few), and “demonstratives” (this, these, that, those).
2. Opinion (or Observation) – Opinions are just that, opinions (something someone could argue with, rather than concrete fact). Examples include adjectives such as ugly, cool, opinionated, priceless, difficult, delicious, and comfortable. The majority of adjectives fall into this category.
3. Size – Size refers to the overall mass or surface area of the subject and includes examples such as tall, petite, and massive.
4. Shape – Shape pertains to the external form of an object and may include adjectives such as circular, triangular, irregular, oblong, and square.
5. Age – Age can be an exact number, a specific period or a length of time. Examples include 1954, young, new, ancient, vintage, two-week-old, etc.
6. Color – Color is largely self-explanatory, although you don’t have to stick with basic colors like red, yellow, and blue but can use more precise descriptions such as burnt-orange, amber, and nutmeg.
7. Origin – Origin refers to the state, country or region something is from, such as Hawaiian, German or Asian. Or, origin can identify the brand or model of an item such as Honda, Dell or iPhone 10.
8. Material – Material pertains to the primary elements comprising an object in either its generic or specific form. This could be modifiers like wooden, metal, and fabric (generic) or oak, aluminum, and cotton (specific).
9. Qualifier (or Purpose) – A qualifier is a word, typically a noun or an adjective ending in –ing, that describes a specific kind or purpose for a noun. For instance, the words "floor", "table", and "hanging" can each be used to describe the word lamp - a floor lamp, table lamp, or hanging lamp. Other examples include sleeping bag, work pants, walking stick and beach towel.
Final: Noun – Naturally, you also need a final noun – the person, place or thing that all of the adjectives describe (i.e. teddy bear).
Putting It All Together
So putting all nine categories together, you can create something like this:
Man: I hate to have to tell you this, but your serving spoon just broke.
Woman: Which serving spoon?
Man: You know, your beautiful little circular antique cream Italian marble serving spoon.
Woman: Oh no!
Oh yes! That sentence just used all nine adjective categories, including: your (determiner), beautiful (opinion), little (size), circular (shape), antique (age), cream (color), Italian (origin), marble (material), serving (qualifier), and spoon (final noun).
Of course, you almost never use all nine categories and you rarely need to use more than four. In fact, whenever you can use a single word in place of several words, that is often your best option – particularly when writing. Nevertheless, there are definitely times when using two, three or four adjectives in a row adds variety and detail to your spoken and written English.
A Few Points Regarding Adjective Lists and Punctuation.
When writing an adjective list, always follow these rules:
- NEVER use a comma after determiners.
- NEVER use a comma between the final adjective and the noun it modifies.
- ALWAYS use a comma(s) and/or "and" between adjectives within the same category.
For example: A crumpled orange, yellow, and brown oak leaf landed near my foot. (Orange, yellow, and brown are each from the same category – color – so they receive the additional punctuation.)
The above three punctuation rules above are the primary ones about which almost all grammarians agree. However, there is a fourth rule on which many academic sources disagree, and that is, whether or not there should be commas placed between adjectives from separate categories in an adjective list.
Personally, after having studied the finer points related to this debate, I do not generally use commas between adjectives from different categories when they are placed in the proper order (the key here being proper order, as listed above). This point is not mentioned to dissuade you from using multiple adjectives, only to let you know that you may come across differences in comma use when reading.
So Go Ahead and Experiment
Playing around with various combinations of adjective strings is a great way to become comfortable with using multiple modifiers. For instance, how precisely can you describe the chair you are sitting on, the car you drive, or a decoration hanging on your wall?
Simply use the nine categories and punctuation tips above, and you will be well on your way to mastering the use of combined adjectives. Like other parts of English grammar, there may sometimes be exceptions to the rule; however, when in doubt, just ask a native speaker.
Italki teachers, like myself, are generally more than happy to answer these types of questions for you!
Have fun using your intriguing new word order!