Order of adjectives

Remember the film “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”?

I didn’t see it either. But it doesn’t matter. The point I’m going to discuss here is why we can’t say “My Greek Fat Big Wedding”.

In English there are rules about the order we place adjectives before a noun. Very generally, the rule is that the more important the adjective, the nearer it is to the noun. This usually results in this order:

observation, size, age, shape, colour, origin, material, purpose

So – “big” is a reference to size, “fat” is a reference to shape, and “Greek” is a reference to origin.

Here’s a more detailed breakdown:


General opinion adjectives can describe almost any noun.

E.g.: good, bad, strange, unusual, amazing, brilliant, excellent, wonderful, nice, nasty, awful 

Specific opinion adjectives describe particular nouns.

food: spicy, delicious
clothes: fashionable, casual
furniture: antique, comfortable
people: clever, intelligent, generous, friendly

A qualifier is an attributive noun or gerund (-ing form) that acts like an adjective and comes before the noun. You can have more than one of them (but normally not more than three). Examples are underlined below:

office building
running shoes
life insurance
district labour office
car parking space
share purchase agreement
employee share option scheme

Here are some examples of mistakes I’ve seen related to adjective order:

a Dutch leading manufacturer

a leading Dutch manufacturer => observation, origin

arbitration potential claims

potential arbitration claims => observation, qualifier

the economic recent instability

the recent economic instability => age, type

a Polish temporary residence permit

a temporary Polish residence permit => observation, origin, qualifier

The Purchaser has the right to make emergency two copies of the Software.

The Purchaser has the right to make two emergency copies of the Software. => determiner, qualifier

a separate, template, new employment agreement

a separate, new template employment agreement => observation, age, qualifier, qualifier



As with any rule, there are exceptions. The main exception can be illustrated by this example:

Australian red wine => origin, colour

According to the table above, we should say red Australian wine, but we don’t. This is because the adjective “red” classifies the type of wine – so it should be placed in the material/type column in the table above.

Australian red wine => origin, type

In this example “red” is the more important adjective; Australian the less important.

At home we have some posh soap. It describes itself as “Scottish fine soap”, but, according to the rules, you would expect it to be “fine Scottish soap”. It’s “Scottish fine soap” for similar reasons to “Australian red wine” – where “fine” is used to classify the type of soap rather than just express an opinion about it. So this soap is definitively fine. That’s why I know it’s posh. The same structure is used with all sorts of products: “fine wine”, “fine leather goods”, “fine food” etc. etc.

Another exception derives from the rule of ablaut reduplication. Although it has a rather complicated-sounding name, this rule is best explained by reference to childhood songs and stories.

In the story of Little Red Riding Hood there is the Big Bad Wolf. According to the adjective order rules, it should be the Bad Big Wolf – “bad” being a general opinion.

But the rule of ablaut reduplication trumps the adjective order rule. We say “zig zag”, “tic tac”, “mish mash”, “riff raff”, “chit chat”, “pitter patter”, “ding dong”, “ping pong”, “flip flop”, “hip hop” etc. etc. So we must also say “big bad”.

If you know the story of Jack and the Beanstalk, you’ll know the phrase “fee fi fo fum”. Similarly, we say “reading and writing” and never “writing and reading”.

The rule of ablaut reduplication is so powerful because it goes beyond any individual language. Think of the French children’s song Frère Jacques ­ ­– “din dan don” – and the Polish version, Panie Janie – “bim bam bom”. It’ll come as no surprise to learn that Jacob Grimm was among the first to describe this rule.



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2 Responses to Order of adjectives

  1. Hi, what about adjectives like “historical” and “state” if they come together before the noun? Aren’t they both falling into “purpose/qualifier” category?

    • Anna – Thanks for your comment. “State” certainly falls under the purpose/qualifier category, but I think I would consider “historical” as an observation. Certainly “historical” would come before “state” – so, for example, the opening of Parliament in the UK is a “historical state occasion”.

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