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Little green men and the royal order of adjectives

Posted by Wendy Wood on 26th January , 2022 in Grammar
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What do you know about “little green men”? Probably more than you think.

That’s not because the aliens have wiped your memory (although they might have) it’s because, whether you know it or not, we all use something called the royal order of adjectives.

It’s the royal order of adjectives that tells us the martians are little first, green second, and men third. It’s this rule of grammar that stops us ever saying “green little men”.

In English, we use adjectives in a specific order

Adjectives fall into categories. The royal order of adjectives dictates that these categories absolutely have to be in this order:

  • Determiner (articles and other limiters: the, an, his, our)
  • Observation or opinion (exciting, appetizing, expensive)
  • Size (small, large, little)
  • Age (old, new, ancient)
  • Shape (square, round, triangular)
  • Color (blue, purple, green)
  • Origin (Australian, American, Norwegian)
  • Material (describing what something is made of: wool, copper, granite)
  • Qualifier (final adjective, often an integral part of the noun that follows: shopping cart, wedding dress, running shoes)

If you think about the last thing you wrote, you probably used the royal order of adjectives without even realising it. It’s one of those rules you know, without knowing you know it. It’s the reason there isn’t a Riding Red Little Hood.

Do I need a comma?

Sometimes writers are confused about whether to use a comma to separate adjectives used to modify the same noun. To make the decision easier, remember the royal order of adjectives.

Do not use a comma to separate adjectives from different categories. So, you would write:

  • The large black dog walked toward the old wooden fence.
  • The girl bought an antique brown leather handbag.

Do use a comma to separate adjectives in the same category. For example:

  • The hopeless, broken man fell into the stinky, polluted gutter.

A good rule of thumb is if the adjectives can be joined by and or the order can be changed and the sentence still makes sense, use a comma. So the sentence above could also be written as either of the following:

  • The broken, hopeless man fell into the polluted, stinky gutter.
  • The hopeless and broken man fell into the stinky and polluted gutter.

Keep in mind that if you have a string of adjectives, you only need to separate those adjectives in the same category. So you would write:

  • The lovely, useful large yellow desk would never fit in the dark, depressing small room.

Commas are necessary between lovely and useful, and between dark and depressing, because they are all from the opinion category of adjectives.

If you’re ever in doubt about your strings of adjectives, you need a proofreader! Get in touch with Typeset. We’d be happy to help you with your little green men.




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