Order of Adjectives

Most native English speakers instinctively place certain adjectives before others. You may be surprised there is a quasi-official order for adjectives. 

Mignon Fogarty
2-minute read

A listener asked me to talk about the proper order of adjectives, and I apologize. I can’t find the original message, so I’m not sure who it was from. But I remembered that you asked!

Most native English speakers instinctively put adjectives in the right order in sentences without giving it much thought. You just know that, even though they both sound icky, for some reason, the ugly black goop sounds like better English than the black ugly goop. In fact, many of you will probably be surprised to learn that there is a quasi-official proper order for adjectives.  Surprise! It goes like this:

1.     Opinion (e.g., ugly, beautiful)

2.     Size (e.g., big, little)

3.     Age (e.g., young, old)

4.     Shape (e.g., square, round)

5.     Color (e.g., black, yellow)

6.     Origin (e.g., British, American)

7.     Material (e.g., polyester, Styrofoam) 

8.     Purpose (e.g., swimming, as in a swimming pool, sewing, as in a sewing machine)

The first letters of all those qualifiers spell something that almost sounds like a word—OSASCOMP—and that’s how I remember it.

You don’t want to string together too many adjectives before a noun, but sometimes three makes sense. For example, you could write that Aardvark threw his old round wooden ball at Squiggly.

As you may have already gathered, there are lots of exceptions to these rules, especially in the physical descriptions—size, age, shape, and color—which is why I call them quasi-official. For example, to me, the square green tile and the green square tile both sound right. It just depends on where you want to put the emphasis. 

There’s also a different suggested order out there that switches the order, putting shape before age instead of after it. I’ve looked and looked at the difference, and there are sentences where one order seems better and sentences where the other order seems better. For example, these sentences sound better using the OSASCOMP order with age before shape:

The old round vase and He sent fresh long-stemmed roses.

Both sound better than

The round old vase and He sent long-stemmed fresh roses.

But this sentence sounds better with the other order that puts shape before age.

The round antique vase sounds better than The antique round vase.

But none of them sound horribly wrong either.

The other areas seem to hold up better. For example, the beautiful Turkish rug sounds right and the Turkish beautiful rug sounds quite wrong. And the white marble tile definitely sounds better than the marble white tile.

That’s your Quick and Dirty Tip: If you’re in doubt about how to write your adjectives, there’s a somewhat useful suggested order, and I use OSASCOMP to remember that it’s opinion, size, age, shape, color, origin, material, and purpose. But know that there are times when you can deviate from the order, and there is another alternative suggested order too.

Photo courtesy of Canva.com.

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About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips and the author of seven books on language, including the New York Times bestseller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." She is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame, and the show is a five-time winner of Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards. She has appeared as a guest expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show. Her popular LinkedIn Learning courses help people write better to communicate better.