The red big bus

THERE’S NOTHING GRAMMATICALLY WRONG with that headline. Determiner, adjective, adjective, noun. So why is it so awkward to read?

Every native English speaker instinctively knows the correct order in which to place adjectives in a sentence. Let’s make it longer:

The old big red double-decker bus. 

Moving any of those adjectives to a different location results in a clumsiness that renders the sentence almost unintelligible:

The big red double-decker old bus.

The old double-decker big red bus.

The red double-decker old big bus.

The surprising thing is that we’re never explicitly taught how to do this. If you ask anyone in what order adjectives should be placed, they’ll look at you blankly. And that’s because most people – myself included, until very recently – have never given it a moment’s thought.

The really surprising thing is that we almost never get it wrong. We don’t think about it, we just do it; and yet even the most poorly educated will happily pile adjective upon adjective without making a single error.

For the linguistic analysts among you, there is a rule, and it goes like this:

  • Quantity or number
  • Quality or opinion
  • Size
  • Age
  • Shape
  • Colour
  • Proper adjective (often nationality, other place of origin, or material)
  • Purpose or qualifier

And here’s a sentence using all of them:

The three beautiful big old boxy red London double-decker buses all came at once. 

But ask anyone to write down those rules, and they won’t even come close.

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