POP QUIZ ON ADJECTIVES

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

When we first learned to talk, most likely we never gave a second thought to the order of words. We just mimicked our parents until the sentences that came out of our mouths made sense and were understandable.

If a five-year-old said, I kicked over the fence the ball, most likely Mom, Dad, or a kindergarten teacher would tell the child it sounded better to say: I kicked the ball over the fence.

We instinctively knew how to place the words in the right order, even though we didn’t realize exactly what it was we knew or how we knew it. 

[Side note: English is a particularly difficult language for non-native speakers to learn because it’s full of inconsistencies and contradictory rules. If you didn’t learn English as a first language, please accept my condolences for the misery you’re going through.]

 

At some point in our language development, we learned that adjectives make sentences more descriptive. For those of us destined to become writers, adjectives became fun new toys.

Consider the three examples below:

The Jack Russell tan frisky terrier chased a mouse.

Hey, wait a sec. That sounds awkward. What’s wrong?

Instead, how about:

The frisky tan Jack Russell terrier chased a mouse.

Sounds natural.

A hot-air red massive balloon floated above farm land.

Awkward.

A massive red hot-air balloon floated above farm land.

Natural.

A new silver shiny Cadillac was parked in the murky dark shadows of the concrete parking high-rise garage.

Awkward.

A shiny new silver Cadillac was parked in the dark murky shadows of the high-rise concrete parking garage.

Natural.

In these examples, one flows easily off the tongue while, in the other, words come out in halts and jerks.

What is the difference?

The order of the adjectives.

Huh? Who even thinks about that?

Writers, that’s who.

Turns out there are actual rules about the correct order of adjectives.

Recently I learned that new lesson when TKZ regular Chuck sent me an interesting article that quotes The Elements of Eloquence: Secrets of the Perfect Turn of Phrase by Mark Forsyth. In his book, Forsyth separates adjectives into eight different types of descriptors and their proper order:

  1. Opinion
  2. Size
  3. Age
  4. Shape
  5. Color
  6. Origin
  7. Material
  8. Purpose

There is even a handy little acronym to remind you of the correct order, using the first letter of each type: OSASCOMP.

Cambridge Dictionary doesn’t want the rules to be that simple so they offer an alternate option that divides adjectives into 10 classifications in slightly different order.

  1. Opinion
  2. Size
  3. Physical quality
  4. Shape
  5. Age
  6. Color
  7. Origin
  8. Material
  9. Type
  10. Purpose

Translated to an acronym: OSPSACOMTP.

Hmm, I think I’ll stick with Forsyth’s version.

In Elements of Eloquence, Forsyth illustrates the correct order with this complicated yet coherent phrase:

A lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife.

Take a moment to experiment. Can you rearrange the adjectives in a different order that makes sense and sounds better?

Me neither.

Of course, no author would dare string that many adjectives together without a stern reprimand from the editor.

Photo credit: Isaak Alexandre Karslain, Unsplash

Let’s have some fun with a quiz. Read the following jumbled descriptions and put them in the correct order. Your choice of either Forsyth’s or Cambridge Dictionary’s rules.

  1. The wicked old shriveled witch cast a permanent vengeful curse on the young innocent maiden.
  2. The black-and-tan huge guard German Shepherd dog growled when the child grabbed her puppy.
  3. The parchment ancient yellowed fragile scroll crumbled when touched.
  4. Margie couldn’t resist buying the silk designer black sexy strapless dress.

Below are my answers. If you disagree, please share in the comment section.

  1. The wicked (opinion) shriveled (physical quality) old (age) witch cast a vengeful (opinion) permanent (type) curse on the innocent (opinion) young (age) maiden.
  2. The huge (size) black-and-tan (color) German Shepherd (origin) guard (purpose) dog growled when the child grabbed her puppy.
  3. The fragile (physical quality) ancient (age) yellowed (color) parchment (material) scroll crumbled when touched.
  4. Margie couldn’t resist buying the sexy (opinion) strapless (shape) black (color) designer (origin) silk (material) dress.

Here’s a shortcut for when you’re writing a sentence with several adjectives but can’t remember the rules:

Read the sentence out loud.

If it sounds awkward, rearrange the order of the adjectives until the sentence flows smoothly and naturally.

If you’re still not sure, read the sentence out loud to someone else. Ask how the adjective order sounds best to their ears.

If you can’t remember the rules or would rather ignore them, here’s the easiest option of all: don’t string more than two adjectives together.

Your editor will appreciate it and so will your readers.

~~~

TKZers: Did you know there were rules for the order of adjectives?

As a writer, do you love adjectives? Or would you rather discard them in the same wastebasket with adverbs?

~~~

Debbie Burke is an absentminded (opinion) aging (age) blond (color) Montana (origin) thriller (purpose) writer who never uses more than two adjectives in a row. You can verify that if you read Debbie’s six-book series at this link.

This entry was posted in #amwriting, #writers, #writetip, #writetips, #writing, Writing and tagged , , , by Debbie Burke. Bookmark the permalink.

About Debbie Burke

Debbie writes Tawny Lindholm Thrillers with Passion. The first book in the series, Instrument of the Devil, won the Kindle Scout contest and the Zebulon Award. Additional books in the series are Stalking Midas, Eyes in the Sky, Dead Man's Bluff, Crowded Hearts, Flight to Forever, and Until Proven Guilty. Debbie's articles have won journalism awards in international publications. She is a founding member of Authors of the Flathead and helps to plan the annual Flathead River Writers Conference in Kalispell, Montana. Her greatest joy is mentoring young writers. http://www.debbieburkewriter.com

39 thoughts on “POP QUIZ ON ADJECTIVES

  1. A fun post, Debbie.

    As always (and as you know), in service of Story, sometimes it’s important to get the word order wrong. Witness “I Sing the Body Electric” vs. the corrected “I sing the electric body.” Strictly for fun, of course.

    • Exactly, Harvey. That’s why English is such a challenging language to master, even when it’s your first language, let alone second or third.

      As with all rules, break them when necessary in service of the story.

  2. Great post, Debbie. I didn’t know there were rules for the order of adjectives., but I’m not surprised. I love adjectives, especially the unexpected. telling adjective that helps describe characters succinctly.

    In the “Read the sentence out loud” section, I would add that the text to speech programs can be helpful in finding the order that is most pleasing to the ear. I use Scrivener and Word.

    Thanks for giving us another acronym to add to our toolbox.

    Have a great day!

    • Thanks, Steve.

      The order rule for adjectives was a new one for me, too.

      Using a read-aloud feature is an excellent way to catch many other problems besides adjectives.

  3. Thanks for the fun, informative, and terrific post, Deb! I’ll be laughing all day long about “time bad.” Hope you have a great one!

  4. Thanks, Joe. So glad you’re still hanging around the TKZ water cooler!

    In an earlier draft of this post, I started to talk about word order in different languages, like Spanish (adjective after noun) and German (verb at the end of a sentence) but that discussion would have gone on for days.

  5. I’d seen this on Facebook a few times. Reminded me of learning Latin, where you could put the words in any order because their genders, cases, etc., would agree. Doing homework was like working a word jigsaw puzzle. German was a little easier, but waiting until the end of a sentence for the verb was taxing.

    • Terry, I took one year of German in high school and that verb at the end always bugged me.

      Do you find Latin helped you as a writer? That used to be a recommendation by teachers.

      Is Latin even offered anymore at any level?

      • My mom was a native German speaker, but they didn’t offer it in school, so I took Latin. I learned almost all my English grammar in Latin classes. Took 2 years of German in college. No clue if it’s still offered.

  6. When I was first learning French, I thought you could stick the adjective any old place in a sentence. Wrongo, brie-breath. Take the simple example of the adjective “ancient.” In French you can say:

    “Mon ancien mari” or “Mon mari ancien.”

    The first one means he’s your ex. The second one means he’s as old as dirt. If he’s both, I don’t know what you say. 🙂

  7. The wicked witch–old, shriveled, vengeful–cast a permanent curse on the young innocent maiden.

    You never said we couldn’t cheat with em dashes! 😉

    Great post, Debbie. Hope you have an amazing day!

  8. This post was a bit mind-blowing for me, Debbie. I didn’t know there were rules for the order of adjectives, I just went with what felt right, which turns out to be, not far off from the rules. But knowing the rules of order–that’s very helpful. I tend to be sparing in my use of adjectives. That might not change a lot, but it will depend upon POV and character voice, as always 🙂

    Thanks for this insightful lesson in post form!

    • Dale, glad this was helpful. As you say, we normally go with what feels right b/c we first learned language with our ears and instinctively know what sounds best.

  9. I’m also trying to develop a style in my writing and doing so I’m trying to use fewer descriptors. I don’t hate adjectives but I’m certainly trying to avoid them.

    Funny thing, as a Canadian living on the prairies, there is a certain mix of adjective speech that’s unique up here. I feel that I’m trying to shed a lifetime of bad habits so I can be clear with my proses.

    • Ben, a warm howdy from Montana to a neighbor in the north.

      I’m with you on descriptors. Better to use a strong descriptive noun than prop up a weak one with modifiers.

      But be careful that you don’t break too many of what you call “bad” habits b/c they may add a distinctive patois to your unique voice.

      • I love Montana. Been there many times for work and play.

        There’s another thing I thought about my bad habits. I grew up in the 80s and pop culture was an enormous influence on poor diction. The biggest would be the overuse of the word, LIKE. But also we used too many descriptors in my generation and took everything over the top.

        Have a great day and thanks for the advice. You gave me something to think about.

  10. And this, boys and girls, is the reason to read good writers until a proper sentence is intuitive.

    Also, a good reason to read bad writers every now and again, too.

  11. I never realized there was a list for the way to order adjectives. I think I’ll stick with the two-adjective recommendation.

    But if I get ambitious, I may use a noble ten-letter age-old rigid purple British stone-faced qualifying adjectiveI just to prove I can do it. 🙂

    I took Latin in school, and I love the way words in English are often constructed from Latin roots. Gaudeamus igitur!

    • Kay, you sent me to Google with Gaudeamus igitur.

      Your adjective-packed phrase beats the green French silver whittling knife. Well done!

  12. My wife is French Canadian and we raised our kids speaking both languages – French and Canadian. I get a kick out of hearing the two mixed together in one conversation. Like the reversal of adjectives and adverbs can be hilarious somewhat. For instance toilet paper is paper toilet around this mongrel place. (le papier d’toilet) Enjoy your day, Debbie, and one day I’d like to hear you speak Montana.

    • Garry, I tried one of those paper toilets but it dissolved.

      How fortunate for your kids to learn more than one language, even a mish-mash. They pick up languages effortlessly when they’re young. Much harder to learn as an adult.

      As for speaking Montanan, we can’t agree on how to pronounce a number of words. Is it serviceberry or sarvisberry? A barrow pit or a borrow pit? Wash or warsh?

  13. Fun post, Debbie! Tucked it away in my “Teach Me New Tricks” file.

    I also didn’t know about adjective rules. But, as they say, now that I do know the rules, I can break them once in awhile. 🙂

    I took eight (8, ocho, 7+1, 9-1) years of Spanish in school, starting in 6th grade. Even now, I find myself saying stuff like, Look at that house blue! (casa azul) instead of the English version. I do get a few looks sometimes, like maybe I’m having a stroke or something. 🙂

    Thanks, as always, for teaching me something new…

    • JR, you’re right that Cambridge is more complete b/c it includes physical quality and type. But its acronym is a real tongue twister.

  14. I vaguely knew there was a proper order to adjectives. I never tried to learn it; I just know what sounds ok and avoid having more than two modifiers. After a certain point, the usefulness of each added modifier drops off.

    I’m reminded of a 1931 play which the author decided to call “The House Beautiful.” Dorothy Parker eviscerated it with her review: “The House Beautiful is the play lousy.”
    https://www.coopertoons.com/caricatures/dorothyparker_bio.html

    • JGuenther, you are right that piling on more adjectives doesn’t make the image stronger. Instead, it dilutes what the author is trying so desperately to convey. That’s why I choose only one or two of the most vivid adjectives and dump the rest.

  15. Interesting! Thanks for this order and acronym, Debbie. It reinforces what I already somehow knew from growing up speaking English. But good to know, just in case!

    • Oops, hit the reply key by mistake and answered Jodie’s comment twice.

      Brian, Mark Forsyth will be happy to hear that. I haven’t read the whole book but did enjoy the excerpt I read.

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