The “Royal Order” of What, Now?

July 10, 2017

Here’s something I’ve often wondered about: Why do English speakers innately grasp the natural placement of adjectives in sentences? For instance, why do we always describe a “creepy little old man” instead of an “old creepy little man” – or even an “old little creepy man” – in that precise order? And why is it some strings of adjectives get separated by commas while others don’t… like a “hideous, barbaric monster” or an “unkempt, disheveled urchin”?

These are the things that keep me awake nights… when I’m not being awakened by our left-side next-door neighbor’s rooster going off at odd hours or the right-side next-door neighbor’s yappy dogs.

Oddly enough, there’s an actual reason for this – the adjective order and the commas, not the stuff that wakes me up at night. It’s because of something called the “Royal Order of Adjectives” (not to be confused with the Loyal Order of Water Buffalo, for those of us old enough to remember watching The Flintstones). The Royal Order of Adjectives is a set of specific guidelines by which English-language sentences are structured, regarding the placement of adjectives.

Nine descriptors comprise this Royal Order. They are: determiners; observations/opinions; size; shape; age; color; origin; material; and type. Because observation/opinion precedes size, which precedes color, we’d say “creepy little old man” instead of any other configuration. And because they fall into different descriptor categories (cumulative as opposed to coordinate adjectives), they require no comma.

Conversely, strings of adjectives within the same descriptor category do get separated by commas, because they are of equal weight (for lack of a better way to describe this).

Let’s explore those nine descriptors.

  1. Determiners – these specify the item being described (e.g., that, my, their)
  2. Observations/opinions – subjective descriptions (e.g., crumbling, hairy, disheveled)
  3. Size (e.g., medium, microscopic, gargantuan)
  4. Shape – physical dimensions (e.g., round, rhombic, star-shaped)
  5. Age (e.g., Art Nouveau, antique, seven-year-old)
  6. Color (e.g., blonde, crimson, cerulean)
  7. Origin – the item’s place of origin (e.g., Chinese, American, Tibetan)
  8. Material – what the item is made of (e.g., cotton, iron, maple)
  9. Qualifier – this refers to specific properties or type, and may be considered part of the name of the item being described (e.g., boudoir lamp, cellular phone, electric guitar)

Go ahead and use any number of descriptors in your writing – just be sure to put them in the proper order. You could describe “her clingy blue skirt”; “his rusted, clunky [note: You’d use a comma here because both adjectives are observation/opinion descriptors] oblong red wagon” or even “my sleek antique black European spruce grand piano.”

And now that I’m fairly certain I won’t be kept awake wondering about adjective placement, I might just get a good night’s sleep tonight. What more could I ask for?