A big red bucket

Suppose I have a bucket that’s big and red.

Is it correct to describe my bucket as a red big bucket, rather than a big red bucket? My instinct tells me that big red bucket is correct, and red big bucket is not, but I can come up with no real basis for this, (other than “it just doesn’t sound right.”)

Any thoughts?

My thoughts (no specific cites) would be that in English technically all the adjectives applied to a noun are equal, and so could properly be given in any order.

But in practice, there seem to be a lot of conventions about which one is listed first. It seems to most often be the one that is most ‘important’ in describing the object. Size is frequently ‘important’; thus ‘big’ is often listed first, for example “Rush is a big, fat idiot”, “lumberjacks are big and burly”, “bigger and better in every way”, etc.

This may also be related to function; ‘functional’ adjectives seem to be commonly listed before merely ‘descriptive’ ones. Like in your example, a big bucket functions differently than a small bucket, but a red bucket works no differently than a green one.

Still, I think this is mostly convention, possibly based on the way people learn the language, and maybe influenced by popular quotations.

Yes, the convention.

If bucket size was the main distinction and color was secondary, that’s when you would say “red big bucket”. LL Bean sells a lot of different women’s shirts; one kind is called the ‘big shirt’ and they are available in various colors. So would you rather buy the red camp shirt or the red big shirt?

If you wanted to distinguish it from other big buckets, the color would come first. “I want the red big bucket, not the green big bucket or the yellow big bucket. The blue big bucket is Right Out.”

While there’s certainly nothing wrong with mixing them up, there is a natural order for English adjectives, dividing them into eight classes. It goes something like this:

opinion, size, age, shape, color, origin, material, qualifier

Since “big” is size and “red” is color, the natural order dictates you use “big, red bucket”.

All eight together: The charming small old shallow brown Anasazi earthen mixing bowl.

Is it for emergencies because you gotta have a big red plastic bucket for emergencies

That’s the emergency big red bucket, not to be confused with the big red emergency bucket.

Achenar, that is fascinating. I didn’t know that. Do you have a cite? Not that I don’t believe you, but rather that I’d like to read more about this with other examples.

Sure. Here’s one. Similar lists show up on a lot of ESL sites; I guess it just comes naturally to native speakers. You can find some variation on the ordering and classification, and I honestly don’t know if the listing I gave is the most accepted. But that’s the basic idea, and I think size is always put before color.