June 10th, 2020 by Jane Turner
This is one of those largely unspoken rules – so unspoken that I’m not surprised how many writers don’t know about it.
Yes, there is a specific order to place your adjectives! I know, right? Shocked me, too… As it turns out, descriptors sound best when placed in a specific order and there’s actually a grammatical rule called The Royal Order of Adjectives.
Now, before you start thinking about old men in uniforms, with sashes, ribbons, and secret handshakes – let me expand.
Have you ever come across a descriptive sentence that just didn’t sound right? Where the words sounded off, though all were correctly spelt and regularly used to describe that particular thing?
I came across one today:
When you see the beautiful snow white sleek beauty of a swan and then see their stubby, thick knobbly black legs and flat webbed feet, the contrasts are striking.
Now, I’m a long-time fan of the writer, but something about this sentence just didn’t flow. It felt wrong. It took me a couple of reads to realise the descriptors don’t conform to the Royal Order of Adjectives.
This realisation made me think about stuff writers should know – whether they write a blog, fiction, business documents, poetry, songs or whatever. And one of the things that Writers Should Know (now with added capitals and emboldened, because this is important) is about the Royal Order of Adjectives. Yes, it’s really a thing. Honest.
If you‘re using a number of descriptors in a sequence, like my writer did above, then there is a specific order that should be used. Let’s take a look…
It might look a bit weird, but adjective-rich sentences actually do sound better when the descriptors are placed in this order. Here are some examples:
Makes sense, doesn’t it? These sentences are explanatory, descriptive, fluid and sound correct. (As does this one! 😊)
So, back to the writer.
His writing is good – it’s descriptive, emotive and colourful. He makes his points intelligently and well. But it appears he doesn’t know about the Royal Order of Adjectives.
If he did, his sentence would sound like this:
When you see the beautiful sleek snow–white sleek beauty elegance of a swan and then see their thick stubby thick knobbly black legs and flat webbed feet, the contrasts are striking.
(I changed the final ‘beauty’ as he’d already called the swan beautiful, so it was repetitive and redundant. Call it an intrusion of my Editing Brain. I’m not going to apologise – ‘elegance’ is a much better word for a swan.)
Learn about the Royal Order of Adjectives. You can’t go wrong.
But, before we close this post… One last, and equally important, point:
My final point on adjectives, which probably deserves a post on its own. Putting it here is more helpful, though – hopefully the two will sink in together.
When punctuating your adjectives, don’t go nuts with the commas. They’re not required in all instances. Truly.
The ‘Don’t Do It’ grammatical rules are:
And, the ‘Do It’ points:
‘The sneaky and hungry cat stole my food.’
‘The sneaky, hungry cat stole my food.’
‘The hungry, sneaky cat stole my food.’
And, when applied to our example sentence (with a little editing, because I just can’t help myself):
When you see the graceful beautiful sleek snow-white elegance of a swan, then notice their thick, stumpy, stubby knobbly black legs and flat webbed feet, the contrasts are striking.
What do you think?
Can you see how the adjectives now flow all on their own? (And, separately, can you see how an edit can be useful? Nudge, nudge)
So, there you go – the lowdown on the Royal Order of Adjectives, and some bonus grammatical info. You’ve learnt a lot today. (Well done, you! Have a lollipop 🍭)
Feel free to print and cut-out the Royal Order graphic above and tape it to your monitor. Always useful, always handy.
Also, check out my other blogs under Tips for Writers. More to come, soon!
If you’re thinking that I might just be able to help you (and I really can, you know), Contact me and let’s talk about your project.