Order of consecutive adjectives

Is there a rule that determines the order of a sequence of adjectives?

Why do we say “big black dog” and not “black big dog”?
Why do we say “cheap plastic toy” and not “plastic cheap toy”?

Please, no convoluted long answers. But long convoluted ones are OK.

In examples like this, I think it’s a case of the adjective nearest the noun goes with the noun as a unit. “Plastic toy” is a unit, and the adjective “cheap” describes the unit. Or if you prefer, (cheap (plastic toy)). The same may apply for longer series of adjectives, but I will have to think of some examples.

Enjoy your Royal Order of Adjectives.

This is from a guide to English writing and grammar but from what I can gather it’s a descriptive chart, not a proscriptive one. It also states upfront there’s going to be exceptions.

And as for why, I think what you’re looking for is a long, convoluted answer. They aren’t rules in the same sense that we have rules about punctuation, because the rules of adjective ordering weren’t consciously decided on. They arise from native speaker intuition about what sounds “right.”

I ran a quick search on the Linguist List archives, and found a message where a poster who requested information on the subject posted a summary of references he received. If you have a university nearby, you might check them out.

It’s a really interesting question. Other languages have fixed orders for adjectives as well, but they’re not always the same as English.


Thanks, Hazel. The ‘Royal Order of Adjectives’ is exactly the type of thing I was looking for. I was also interested in the rationale, if any, for the ordering. Sounds like there isn’t.

  • KG