Crazy, Colorful, Complicated Adjectives!

We all use adjectives to describe things clearly. But did you know adjectives must be in a specific order? Also, do you know when to use commas in between them? Is it the “beautiful tiny white rose” or the “tiny beautiful white rose” or the “tiny, beautiful, white rose?” (One of those is correct.) Let’s learn about these crazy adjectives! 🙂

First, here is the order in which you list adjectives:

  1. Quantity (four, a few, several)
  2. Opinion (delicious, charming, beautiful, lazy, soft, hard, thick, flimsy)
  3. Size (tall, huge, tiny)
  4. Age (old, young, new, ten-year-old)
  5. Shape
  6. Color
  7. Origin (Swedish, Chinese)
  8. Material (glass, wooden, cotton)
  9. Purpose or qualifier (sports [car])

So the correct order would be “beautiful tiny white rose” (opinion, size, color)

More examples:

* I saw two stunning antique Victorian brass candle holders. (quantity, opinion, age, origin, material)

* He owns a gorgeous new red Italian sports car. (opinion, age, color, origin, qualifier)

* She has a delicate heart-shaped face and big blue eyes. (opinion, shape … size, color)

* We wondered what was in the three huge oblong yellow packages. (quantity, size, shape, color)


Second, this is how to determine when to use a comma between adjectives:

COORDINATE ADJECTIVES

If you use adjectives in the same category (from the list above), you use commas to separate them. These are called “coordinate adjectives.” They can be rearranged without changing the meaning, so put commas in between them.

I can’t lift the heavy, bulky box.
I can’t lift the bulky, heavy box.

He’s a lazy, no-good, worthless bum.
He’s a no-good, lazy, worthless bum.
He’s a worthless, lazy, no-good bum.

She wore an exquisite, breathtaking, dazzling wedding gown.
She wore a breathtaking, exquisite, dazzling wedding gown.
She wore a dazzling, breathtaking, exquisite wedding gown.

TIP: You can use the word “and” in between coordinate adjectives:

I can’t lift the heavy and bulky box.

He’s a lazy and no-good and worthless bum. / He’s a lazy, no-good, and worthless bum.

She wore an exquisite and breathtaking and dazzling wedding gown. / She wore an exquisite, breathtaking, and dazzling wedding gown.

CUMULATIVE ADJECTIVES

If you use only one adjective per category (from the list above), you do not use commas to separate them. They are distinctly different from each other. These are called “cumulative adjectives.”

TIP: You cannot use “and” in between cumulative adjectives:

I saw two and stunning and antique and Victorian and brass candle holders. (Incorrect, so don’t use commas.)


COMBINING ADJECTIVES

There are instances where you may use a combination of the two. For example, I was asked this question:

Which categories do “thick,” “curly,” and “dark” fit into? Is it “Her thick, dark, curly hair” or “Her thick dark curly hair” or is it “Her thick, curly, dark hair” or “Her thick, curly dark hair”?

Answer: It could be either: “Her thick, curly dark hair” or “Her curly, thick dark hair” or “Her thick and curly dark hair.”

Both “thick” and “curly” are OPINION words (coordinate adjectives, so put a comma or the word “and” between them), and they come before COLOR in the hierarchy (cumulative, so no comma between OPINION and COLOR adjectives). In this case you are using two coordinate adjectives along with a cumulative adjective.


Savvy Writer Tip:

Adjectives are effective for describing things vividly. Savvy, proficient, astute writers know how to use coordinate and cumulative adjectives correctly. 😉

12 thoughts on “Crazy, Colorful, Complicated Adjectives!

  1. Talena Winters 07/10/2018 / 5:49 pm

    Great reminders! I’m constantly looking this up, so I’ve bookmarked this article. Thanks, Lora!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Lora D 07/10/2018 / 7:49 pm

    Thank you! If there’s a topic that you think I should write about, please let me know.

    Like

  3. Talena Winters 07/11/2018 / 2:19 pm

    Hmm. One thing I was struggling with lately was finding a definitive rule about a comma before “too” or “though” at the end of a sentence. As in, “Me, too” or “I want to go, too.” After much research, I abandoned it. I was taught to do this as a rule, but I couldn’t find a guideline about it in either the Termium Plus Canadian Style Guide or the Chicago Manual of Style.

    Another one that seems confusing for people (not me, I’m sure I know) is putting a comma after a preposition that begins a sentence. I say no, commas go before prepositions, not after. But I still see very experienced writers do this: “But, I still see very experienced writers do this.” Have you already covered this? If not, ideas for you! Voila! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Lora D 07/11/2018 / 4:21 pm

    Thank you for the ideas! Let me give you quick answers on these two perplexing questions.

    First, there isn’t a rule about using commas around “too” (which is why you couldn’t find one). Typically commas are optional if the sentence is clear without them. So your examples are acceptable as written, or you could also eliminate the commas. It’s a matter of taste when the meaning is clear. But you do need to use commas around “too” for clarity or for emphasis. Examples: “I, too, like fried green tomatoes.” or “I was terrified, but then, too, I’d never been in a hurricane before.”

    Second, there is no rule about using a comma after a preposition starting a sentence except if it is a prepositional phrase of four words or longer–then you do need to use a comma. Otherwise it’s a matter of preference. “But I’m too tired to go.” and “But, I’m too tired to go.” are both correct. However, you do need commas for clarity. Let’s look at your first example with and without a comma. “I say no, commas go before prepositions.” and “I say no commas go before prepositions.” In the first sentence, the prepositional phrase is stating your negative opinion. In the second sentence, you are stating something to be the case. Since these two statements have opposite meanings, the comma is necessary for clarity.

    Thank you for asking, and happy writing! 🙂

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  5. Talena Winters 07/19/2018 / 7:30 pm

    I thought of another question. One place I struggle with commas and adjectives is in descriptions of body parts, especially hair. Which categories do “thick,” “curly,” and “dark” fit into? Is it “Her thick, dark, curly hair” or “Her thick dark curly hair” or is it “Her thick, curly, dark hair?” or “Her thick, curly dark hair?”

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Lora D 07/19/2018 / 8:02 pm

    Great question! It could be either: “Her thick, curly dark hair” or “Her curly, thick dark hair” or “Her thick and curly dark hair.” Both “thick” and “curly” are SHAPE words (interchangeable, so put a comma or the word “and” between them), and they come before COLOR in the hierarchy. In this case you are using two coordinate adjectives along with a cumulative adjective. Make sense? 🙂

    Like

  7. Lora D 07/19/2018 / 8:09 pm

    This is such a good question I’m going to add it to the blog post. Thank you!

    Like

  8. Talena Winters 07/19/2018 / 8:35 pm

    Yes, it makes sense, but I never thought of “thick” as a “shape” word. Or “curly” either, for that matter. It’s more like a “condition.” I even thought of “curly” as a qualifier, which is why the “curly” went before “hair” in a couple of my examples. How do you know what to call the adjective when the category is not obvious?

    Like

  9. Talena Winters 07/19/2018 / 8:36 pm

    Btw, I was thinking of “thick” as a “size.” That does seem to be what it is. Why is it a shape when it comes to hair?

    Like

  10. Talena Winters 07/19/2018 / 8:52 pm

    Just came across another one that has flummoxed me. What about sense of touch words, like “soft” or “hard” or “smooth”? Which category do they fall into?

    Like

  11. Lora D 07/19/2018 / 10:20 pm

    Using the words “thick” and “curly” is describing the “shape” of the hair since we don’t have universal measurements/sizes for hair. “Thick” hair would mean something different to different people. “Curly” hair also describes the shape or style of the hair, not an actual measurement. Even “long” and “short” is not an actual measurement when we’re talking about hair. That’s why I put them in the “shape” category. However, they could also be considered “opinion” adjectives.

    “Soft, hard, smooth” are all “opinion” adjectives. They tell us your opinion of something. My dad can’t feel very well with his fingers, so something that is rough to my fingers is smooth to him. A person with no teeth might say a cookie is “hard,” yet it’s “soft” to me. These description words are subjective to each person, so they are “opinion” adjectives.

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