Adjective order: a cotton short-sleeved shirt ... or a short-sleeved cotton shirt

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German - Swiss
Hello all,

I'm not a native speaker of English and I'm having a hard time explaining the correct adjective order to my students. The problem is that I instinctively disagree with the explanations that our textbook provides (Their explanation being: opinion -> age -> pattern/color -> material -> style).

According to our textbook you’re supposed to say "a cotton short-sleeved shirt" but I would much rather say “ a short-sleeved cotton shirt”. Google hits for both collocations show a slight preference for "a cotton short-sleeved shirt" (56 000 to 48 000).

I’d really like to know how native speakers from both the UK and the US feel about jumbling adjectives around like this. Does it hurt your ears or does it not really make a difference as long as adjectives of opinion come before those of appearance?

For example: “A pink, tight, second-hand shirt” would not be correct according to the book we use (“second-hand” should go first: “A second-hand, pink, tight shirt”), but the first version seems nicer to me.

I’d appreciate to get some feedback here just to know if it’s worth the pain I’m causing if I decide to really insist on these rules. If doesn’t make much of a difference I’ll just spare them the trouble.

Thanks for helping!
  • bluegiraffe

    Senior Member
    English - England
    I wouldn't insist on them. I had the same issue when I was a teacher. For a start, when you are talking, you are unlikely to get them in the "correct" order, but rather the order you think of them. In general, we do instinctively stick to a certain order, but not always. The list I had was a bit different to yours so that just goes to show that the writers of these text books are not always right! There are some adjectives we'd instinctively put higher in the list - like age is usually first, but as for the others...


    German - Swiss
    Thanks for your useful comment that reinforced my decision not to insist entirely on these rules.


    Senior Member
    English - South-East England
    The complex rules are generalizations from simple collocations we do intuitively recognize and stick to: a nice old shirt; an old pink shirt; a big wooden box; a red Italian car. With more than two adjectives, or with complex or unfamiliar adjectives, I would expect them to break down to some extent. Students need to be familiar with the use of words like 'old' and 'big' and colours, words that are going to crop up all the time in real use.


    New Member
    I'm teaching this topic this week and the order that I am teaching is opinion, size, age, shape, color, origin, material, purpose.

    So you would have "A great, big, old, round, blue, American, silk, scarf"

    On your example I would say "a second hand, tight, pink shirt" or maybe "a tight, pink, second hand, shirt" I would never use your two examples because in the first “A pink, tight, second-hand shirt” you have color in front of what I would consider opinion (tight) and in the second “A second-hand, pink, tight shirt”, tight is after pink again. But I think of "tight" as opinion since different people have different opinions about what tight is. And the same could apply to "second hand" I guess. It is an interesting issue and I guess there are all kinds of variations that can be correct so we probably go with what sounds better.

    I find there is a lot of leeway in how adjectives can change based on their usage (like second hand). For instance, "old" can be opinion or age.


    Senior Member
    Well, this is indeed a very very loose rule, if at all it exists, but certain textbooks I was once familiar with suggested going from the general to the specific while arranging the adjectives. "A nice old Italian car" would, according to that rule, be phrased like this because there are more nice cars than there are nice old cars than there are nice old Italian cars. But when you have to stick a large number of adjectives to a single noun, it really becomes a mess and I myself tend to get confused, especially if I put it to task to apply this particular rule :)

    Ultimately, I guess, we must simply use the force, Luke :)
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