Friday, June 20, 2014

GrammatiCats: The Royal Order of Adjectives

"The what?  The royal what?  Don't be coming 'round here with all your highnesses and majesties and HMS Jolly Longbottoms.  This is AMERICA, dammit, and we speak democracy!"

YES WE DO.  And that means we have the right to life, liberty, and a full, complete understanding of where all those dang commas go between the adjectives - including the reason why we have one in "full, complete understanding" but not in "all those dang commas".

Good!  Now slow your roll and doff your cap, cuz it's gonna get monarchical in here.

Pinkie Rating: 3

So here is a question for all you native English speakers out there.  Have you ever wondered why he's "Clifford the Big Red Dog" and not "Clifford the Red Big Dog"?  Or why "Pretty Little Liars" would never be "Little Pretty Liars"?  I mean, it's not like the meaning would change if we swapped the words around, right?

"No," you may thoughtfully reply, "but it just wouldn't sound right."

That's the thing, isn't it?  There is some thing, some invisible Anglophone force, which urges us not to say things like "a yellow crusty sock" or "a Swedish antique pube-trimmer" - and not just because they don't make for polite dinner conversation. So what is this mysterious force?

No midichlorians needed, friends: this is called the royal order of adjectives.  And here's how it works:

from the Capital Community College Foundation's excellent article
See those labels along the top?  Those are the categories that dictate the sequence of our adjectives.  We native speakers of English naturally tend to follow this pattern, while speakers of other languages often have a dickens of a time learning it.  (Hot tip, dialecticians: if you're writing a character who's not fully fluent in English, messing with this order is one subtle way you can show that.)

So let's sort our previous examples for practice:

Pretty (observation) Little (size) Liars
The (determiner) Big (size) Red (Color) Dog
a (determiner) crusty (observation) yellow (color) sock
an (determiner) antique (age) Swedish (origin) pube-(qualifier) trimmer

"That's great and all," you may say, "But how does this help me with commas?"

Let's talk about that!

Pop quiz, part 1: how would you describe this cat?

Maybe you thought of adjectives like:
  • tiny
  • angry
  • tortie/tortoiseshell
  • little
  • cute
  • green-eyed
  • multicolored
  • contemptuous
  • hateful
So let's put them to use!  Pop quiz, part 2: which of these phrases need a comma?

1. A cute little tortie cat
2. An angry contemptuous stare
3. The hateful green-eyed monster

Got your answers ready?  Here's the scoop:

1.  We generally wouldn't add commas here, even though there are four adjectives (a, cute, little, and tortie).  Why?  Because each adjective is from a different category - in this case, determiner, observation, size, colorThese are called cumulative adjectives, and they don't usually have commas between them.

By the way, if for some bizarre reason you don't want to print that chart out, laminate it, and sensually lick it as you memorize every one of those categories, here is a good rule of thumb: if you wouldn't use a conjunction like "and" or "but" between the adjectives, they are probably cumulative.  For example, "cute and little cat" doesn't sound good to most of us.  Same with "little and tortie".  No conjunction, no comma!

2.  Definitely need a comma here.  "Angry" and "contemptuous" are both observations (we see the naked spite seeping from Shedding-Cat's eyes), which means that these are adjectives from the same category - otherwise known as coordinate adjectives.  You might also notice that it passes the sniff-test mentioned above:  it wouldn't sound weird to say "an angry and contemptuous stare", so we do need to use a comma in the phrase "an angry, contemptuous stare."

(And if you would like an illustrated example of this same idea, look no further than Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day: four adjectives of observation, three commas, and one rotten day.)

3.  Technically, we shouldn't use a comma here. "Hateful" is an observation, and "green-eyed" is a kind of physical description, which means that these two adjectives don't share a category, and so shouldn't have a comma.

"Technically?  Generally?  Usually?  What's with all this weaseling?"

Well, here is the thing, esteemed literarians: you know that "this is America, and we brake for nobody" sentiment we touched on in the beginning?  That same feeling seems to pervade our whole dang language, no matter where you live or which kind of English you speak - and these rules are meant to clarify and organize our speech, not to limit it.

For example, that little chart says that we should put observations before physical descriptions.  But I kind of like the phrase tiny, angry kitty - don't you?  We have a two-two-two syllable count, and each word begins with a stressed syllable and ends with the same Y-sound.  So maybe I want to put things out of order.  And maybe that means we need a comma there, so that we have time to linger and appreciate the symmetry of the words.

Here's another example from my book (she said, ever so shamelessly):

“Oh no, it was a smashing success, textbook really, just brilliant,” Sil hissed up at him, “until YOU stuck your bloody big nose into it! God damn you Elim, what hellborn foolish idiot notion possessed you –”

See that last phrase there?  "Hellborn foolish idiot notion" is DEFINITELY supposed to have commas in there, since every one of those adjectives is from the same "you're an unbelievable dumbass" category (less-colorfully known as the observation category).  But you can see from context that our boy Sil is tearing into Elim with two hands and both barrels: he's swearing at a mile a minute, and I don't want the reader's eyeballs to move any slower than Sil's mouth.  In this case, grammatical correctness has taken a big back seat to the faithful rendering of livid, spit-flecked outrage.

So with adjective order, as with grammar as a whole, what we really have is a two-step process:

1.  Figure out what you're supposed to do (coordinate adjectives, commas, etc.)

2.  Decide whether you want to do that.

"All right, sure.  But if it's all a bunch of hippy-dippy 'do what feels good' granola, why learn the rules at all?"

Why, because if your rule-following successfully communicates to your reader (or wise, benevolent editor) that yes, you really do know what you're doing, he or she is much more likely to let you get away with breaking said rules when it serves your purpose.  Which is why that blistering bastard train-wreck of a sentence above escaped the red pen and went to print last month - and why I would love for you to enjoy the same kind of flexibility and freedom in your own writing!

And since I know I haven't done one of these posts in awhile, a fresh reminder: please send me cats and questions!  Check out the updated photo submissions guidelines (bottom of the post), and hit me up with grammar questions by email or in the comments.  I wanna know what you wanna know!

Further reading:
Adjectival Magnets - a fun adjective-ordering quiz (requires Java)
Commas Between Coordinate Adjectives - also with handy test-yourself quiz at the end
Coordinate Adjectives Versus Cumulative Adjectives

Many thanks to today's GrammatiCats!

1. Bandi, courtesy of Frank the Magnificent
2. Mystery kitten, courtesy of Jarret O.
3. Riki Tiki Tavi, courtesy of M.E. Kinkade (a cracking good author and freelance editor you totally need to know!)
4. Our own free-lovin' Peaches


  1. Love it! This is my first GrammatiCats since I've followed. Asking yourself if it sounds right with the word 'and' in between the adjectives is a great tip. Thanks for the lesson!

    1. Aw, thanks so much for the enthusiastic thumbs-up - it's been so long since I did one of these that I was worried my grammatical gears had totally rusted over!

  2. You and your cat are so funny! "Pinkie rating!" lol You explain this really well and I will tell some of my students to stop by :)