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Habla inglés con el Método Callan en Barcelona - Callan Method

Adjectives (Part Two)

Last month we started looking at adjectives: the different categories that exist and how they should be ordered. This month we are going to examine adjectives in more detail.
We established that opinion-based adjectives go before physical adjectives, e.g. ‘the brilliant English scientist’ rather than ‘the English brilliant scientist’. ‘Brilliant’ describes the writer’s opinion, rather than describing the scientist physically. (The adjective ‘English’ is a fact, not an opinion.)

Opinion-based adjectives can be split into two further categories: general and specific. If we are talking about food, for example, we would say ‘the amazing tasty meal’, rather than ‘the tasty amazing meal’. Why? It is because general opinion-based adjectives appear before specific, topic-based ones. The adjective ‘amazing’ can be applied generally: to food, books, films and so on. The adjective ‘tasty’, on the other hand, is generally only used with food (it does have other, more idiomatic meanings, but we’ll keep things simple). So ‘amazing tasty’ would be the correct order.

It should be noted at this point that we rarely use more than three adjectives at any one time – two is the usual limit. Consider the following phrase: ‘the red book’. This is perfectly acceptable. ‘The old red book’ is also fine. But writing ‘the fantastic old red book’ might be taking things a bit too far, and writing ‘the fantastic educational old red English book’ would be ridiculous. Treat adjectives like fine wine: there to be appreciated and enjoyed – in moderation.

Let’s venture into the realm of physical adjectives now. Look again at the first two phrases above: ‘the red book’ and ‘the old red book’. Clearly, the first phrase contains one adjective (‘red’), whilst the second phrase holds two (‘old’, ‘red’).

But why do we say ‘the old red book’ and not ‘the red old book’? Is it possible to write ‘the red old book’ instead?

In short, no. This is where order comes into play. We always put an adjective related to age before an adjective related to colour, e.g. ‘the new (AGE) green (COLOUR) car’ and not ‘the green (COLOUR) new (AGE) car’.

Below is a list of adjectival categories in generally agreed order, starting from first to last (‘last’ being those adjectives that would generally appear directly before the noun).




Big, small


Young, old, new


Dirty, angry, hot, easy


Circular, square, fat, short, long


Striped, plain, spotted


Red, blue, green, white, black


British, Catalan, European


Wooden, metal, paper, cotton


Shopping (bag, for example), running (shoes)

So we can now begin to establish and impose order on the adjectives we use, e,g:
‘The angry (CONDITION) young (AGE) American (ORIGIN) boy’
‘The plain (PATTERN) cotton (MATERIAL) dress’
‘His blue (COLOUR) suede (MATERIAL) running (PURPOSE) shoes’
‘My big (SIZE) fat (SHAPE) Greek (ORIGIN) wedding’
‘The beautiful (OPINION) angry (STATE) lady’
If you are ever in doubt about which category an adjective belongs to, don’t worry. These guidelines are not immutable and are here to help rather than intimidate you. Also, grammarians frequently disagree on adjective order; there is no definitive list of right and wrong. However, observing some of the guidelines given above will help you to negotiate the minefield of adjective order. Next month we will look at the difference between ‘coordinate’ and ‘cumulative’ adjectives.

A. Porter

2 Comentarios

  1. Gracias por este blog y los consejos que nos dais. Espero más!

    • Gracias por seguirnos, María.