Order of Adjectives: big beautiful vs beautiful big

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Order of Adjectives: big beautiful vs beautiful big

Post by nawee » Tue Jun 03, 2014 9:45 am


I read the discussion on Order of Adjectives here and I'm still confused. To me, the categories of size and quality are the ones that cause more problems than others. On the British Council website, "opinion" adjectives are divided into "general opinion" and "specific opinion" and both come before "size". I recently read a paper by Enrica Rosato (http://repository.cmu.edu/cgi/viewconte ... =hsshonors) in which she proposes a semantic group called "quality" and places it after "size". The problem is I still can't see the real difference between "quality" and "opinion".

Without going into the debate about "general opinion" vs "specific opinion" or "quality", can we just say that the same word may belong to different categories depending on the context and the meaning the speaker tries to convey?

a) There are big beautiful houses in this neighbourhood.
(following the royal order of opinion > size = general description: the houses are big and they are beautiful)

b) There are beautiful big houses in this neighbourhood.
("big house" is a subset of all houses and these ones are beautiful)

c) He loves to show off his wealth by buying big expensive cars.
(following the royal order of opinion > size = general description: his cars are big and they are expensive)

d) He loves to show off his wealth by buying expensive big cars.
("big car" is a subset of cars as opposed to small and medium-sized cars and these big cars are expensive)

The "meaning" in brackets are just my understanding. I'm not a native speaker, so I lack the language intuition when it comes to nuances. Please correct me if I'm wrong.

And just to be sure, are these four sentences grammatically acceptable?

Best regards,


Re: Order of Adjectives: big beautiful vs beautiful big

Post by Phil White » Tue Jun 03, 2014 10:14 pm

I think I almost understood this at the end of last year. That is a long time ago.

In my posts then, I was trying to go a long way beyond what most language learning guidelines would do.

Your sentences a) and b) introduce an aspect that I did not really talk about. As you rightly suggest, your sentence a) represents "neutral" or "normal" word order. Your interpretation of sentence b) may be correct, but I tend to think there is something slightly different going on here. I would interpret the speaker's intention as being to express the fact that they find the houses beautiful because they are big. The adjective "beautiful" seems to me to be (almost) qualifying the adjective "big", although it is not taking an adverbial form to do so.

One would have to know the speaker and the circumstances to judge whether your interpretation or mine is correct. Both are undoubtedly possible.

In your second pair of sentences, it is not really possible to apply the interpretation I offered above to your sentence d). Indeed, your sentence d) sounds strange to me however I try to interpret it. This may be because (in the UK, at least) we automatically understand "big cars" as being inherently expensive and a sign of wealth. "He drives a big car" is as much a statement about his wealth and ego as it is a statement of fact.

That said, the same does not apply to sentence c). It seems to me that "big" is acting as much as an intensifier as it is as a description of size. (And intensifier's tend to migrate towards the front of an utterance.) Either way, sentence c) is neutral and normal and sentence d) is unusual. I can think of no context for the entire sentence in which it would not sound very peculiar to me. The only context that springs to mind in which the word order "expensive big car" would sound correct would be, for instance, in a car magazine (or a TV show such as Top Gear) in which big cars are regularly discussed and compared. In that context, your interpretation applies: This car belongs to the subset "big cars" (which we regularly discuss), and within that category this is an expensive one.

Hope that helps.
Signature: Phil White
Non sum felix lepus

Re: Order of Adjectives: big beautiful vs beautiful big

Post by nawee » Wed Jun 04, 2014 4:26 am

Dear Phil,

Thank you very much for your reply.

For sentence d), I did a Google search to see if this word order was acceptable. I don't know if it will help, but I found this:
http://forums.digitalspy.co.uk/showthre ... p=64307646
"Cheap small cars" is in the title and "expensive big cars" is quite a bit further down.

I really appreciate your take on the topic. Can you sum up the "final" order for me, please? I couldn't really follow the thread towards the end.

Thank you.


Re: Order of Adjectives: big beautiful vs beautiful big

Post by Phil White » Wed Jun 04, 2014 9:30 am

In your example from the Web, the poster who used "expensive big cars" is echoing the word order of the thread title.

But that raises the question of whether the title itself is normal word order or not. A native speaker intuitively knows that the order is unusual, but crucially also knows when the "rules", such as they are, can be broken.

When I wrote those posts in the older thread, I was more interested in understanding whether there was any relatively simple way of explaining how we know when and how we can deviate from standard word order. The fundamental word order, which will always be grammatically correct, is well described in the various language learning resources.

My suggestion, and it is only a suggestion, proposes a relatively simple explanation that retains most of the rules described elsewhere, but allows for the flexibility you point out in your sample sentences.

The essence of the argument I presented was that adjectives first fall into four categories (I called them "isolating", "defining", "descriptive" and "peripheral") depending on their power to specify a particular item or type. Within those four categories, there are also ordering conventions, so you end up with "nested" orders. I argued that it is very much in the mind of the speaker whether an adjective has strong defining power (for the speaker" and would therefore act as "isolating" rather than "defining", for instance. If there are two or more adjectives in the same category, internal ordering rules for that category apply, and I made an attempt to describe these as well, although they generally follow the familiar rules.

Ultimately, there was no single prescriptive order, but rather a set of categories to which speakers subjectively assign the adjectives.

I said it much better in the old thread.
Signature: Phil White
Non sum felix lepus

Re: Order of Adjectives: big beautiful vs beautiful big

Post by nikkimerrill » Tue Jul 15, 2014 11:20 am

Why is the first adjective big and not the adjective expressing an evaluation or opinion? I thought adjectives expressing the speaker's opinion came first and foremost. I am also curious about the comma separating the two adjectives, how does it affect meaning?

And finally, if I were to insert red in the first example, where would it fit best and should I keep the commas?

Re: Order of Adjectives: big beautiful vs beautiful big

Post by Phil White » Tue Jul 15, 2014 2:26 pm

Have a look at this thread (all of it, as my ideas develop throughout the thread), where I try to discuss the issue at very great length.

As far as the commas are concerned, it seems to me that we tend to separate items with commas if the items have a similar degree of defining power (this will usually mean that they belong to the same category in the structure I proposed).

  • The big, overweight dog.
    Both of these have a similar level of defining power.
  • The beautiful Georgian house.
    "Georgian" has far greater defining power than "beautiful".
That said, commas are, in many cases, largely a question of preference, and I have noticed that usage varies wildly with sequences of adjectives. The simplest way to look at it is to say that if we pause slightly in speech, the sentence will benefit from a comma.

Just a couple to think about:
  • The beautiful sailing ship.
    No pause, no comma. "sailing" has far greater defining power than "beautiful".
  • The beautiful, white ship.
    Pause, comma. The speaker regards "beautiful and "white" as having similar defining power.
  • The beautiful white ship.
    No pause, no comma. Either the speaker feels that "white" has far greater defining power than "beautiful"
    "beautiful" qualifies "white" rather than the ship (the ship is a beautiful white)
    (possibly) the speaker regards the ship as beautiful because it is white (this may amount to the same as the first interpretation).
But as I say, it is largely preference and subjective interpretation.
Signature: Phil White
Non sum felix lepus

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