How to Order Cumulative Adjectives in a Sentence

When you read the phrase "gray three adorable lambs," it sounds awkward. You probably know that it should be "three adorable gray lambs" instead. But how did you know the proper order of these adjectives? Keep reading for an explanation on the sequence of cumulative adjectives, as well as several examples.

order cumulative adjectives order cumulative adjectives
Advertisement

What Are Cumulative Adjectives?

Many times, one adjective is enough to describe a noun. But sometimes you want to describe multiple features of a noun in one sentence. That's where cumulative adjectives come in.

Cumulative adjectives are two or more adjectives that build upon each other. Three, adorable, and gray are all cumulative adjectives in the phrase "three adorable gray lambs." But cumulative adjectives aren't randomly placed to describe the noun — they follow a specific order. English speakers know this order instinctively, but for English learners, it's a little trickier.

The Correct Order of Cumulative Adjectives

When you use cumulative adjectives, you put them in a hierarchy of importance. The adjectives become more descriptive and permanent as they get closer to the noun. For example, there may not always be three lambs, and they may not always be adorable, but they will always be gray — so gray goes right before "lambs" in the phrase "three adorable gray lambs." After using an article (a, an, the), a demonstrative adjective (this, that, these, those) or a possessive determiner (my, his, your), you can list your cumulative adjectives.

The order of cumulative adjectives in English is:

Type of AdjectiveExamples
1. Quantitytwo, six, entire
2. Opinionsilly, nice, annoying
3. Size or measurementslarge, small, tiny
4. Ageyoung, old, mature
5. Shaperound, oblong, bent
6: Colorred, blush, yellow
7. Proper adjectives (origin, ethnicity, religion)Irish, Catholic, Japanese
8. Materialcotton, silk, wool
9. Purposemakeup brush, living room, sleeping bag

This is the general order for cumulative adjectives, but there are some exceptions. Adjectives used to denote the type of noun in compound nouns (such as "hot dog" or "living room") and in common noun phrases (such as "orange juice" or "French fries") don't follow this exact order. These adjectives must always be next to the noun in a cumulative adjective list.

Additional Adjective Categories

The above list is the generally accepted order of adjectives. However, some lists and style guides include the following categories:

  • condition or quality (after size) - excited, dirty, shy
  • type (after material) - all-purpose, four-sided, L-shaped

Putting adjectives in order may seem confusing. You can check back in on the list if you need it, but chances are, your grammar instincts will take over.

Printable Cumulative Adjectives Reference

Need a handy reference sheet to put cumulative adjectives in the right order? Download and print a helpful PDF for your office, classroom or writing notebook.

cumulative adjectives

View & Download PDF

Like the adverb, you don't want to overdo it with adjectives. More than three of them will remove the fluidity from your sentences. So, aim to keep your descriptors to a maximum of three.

Advertisement

Examples of Cumulative Adjectives

Read the sentence "John read the lovely Shakespearean sonnet." The adjective "lovely" expresses an opinion, while "Shakespearean" is a proper adjective. Describing it as a "Shakespearean lovely sonnet" sounds incorrect because the adjectives are out of order.

Check out more cumulative adjectives examples to put your organization rules to the test.

  • This is a marvelous old Italian villa. ("marvelous" expresses an opinion; "old" denotes age, "Italian" denotes origin)
  • In the store, she examined an oblong Japanese makeup brush. ("oblong" denotes shape, "Japanese" denotes origin, "makeup" denotes purpose)
  • After debating between the two, she went with the tall red maple tree. ("tall" denotes size, "red" denotes color, "maple" denotes the type)
  • I tried on a beautiful green satin gown for the gala. ("beautiful" expresses opinion, "green" denotes color, "satin" denotes material)
  • He decided to adopt the six cutest little brown puppies. ("six" denotes quantity, "cutest" expresses an opinion, "little" denotes size, "brown" denotes color)
  • Those three mean teenage boys are making fun of me. ("three" denotes quantity, "mean" denotes opinion, "teenage" denotes age)
  • We shared a delicious hot tomato soup. ("delicious" expresses an opinion, "hot" denotes the condition, "tomato" denotes the type)

You'd think a string of modifiers would require commas, but not in these cases. Cumulative adjectives don't require commas between descriptors. That's one way they are different from coordinate adjectives.

Advertisement

Cumulative Adjectives vs. Coordinate Adjectives

Like cumulative adjectives, coordinate adjectives work together to modify the same noun. However, their order doesn't matter because each adjective has equal weight. You can switch the adjectives without affecting the meaning.

For example, read the sentence "This is a wonderful, inspirational and modern bit of storytelling." All of these adjectives are in the same category, so you don't need to worry about their order. Unlike cumulative adjectives, you do need to use commas or the word "and" between coordinate adjectives (though the decision to use the Oxford comma is between you and your style guide).

Add It Up With Cumulative Adjectives

There's no denying the color that comes from a well-placed set of adjectives. If the order of cumulative adjectives isn't quite intuitive to you yet, feel free to consult the lists above to make sure your sentence is as clear as possible. If you'd like to find more ways to make your writing vivid and memorable, check out a thorough list of descriptive words, including adjectives, adverbs and gerunds. And if you really want to see some epic cumulative adjectives, take a look at these famous and funny Shakespearean insults.