Cumulative (aka attributive) adjectives, unlike coordinate (aka correlative) adjectives, do not require commas between them when placed before their object in a sentence. While coordinate adjectives are sequentially interchangeable, there is a standard order to cumulative adjectives that most native English speakers understand intuitively without necessarily realizing it:

  1. Articles, possessives, and demonstrativesthe, her, those
  2. Time indicators: last, primary, next
  3. Words indicating amount, or counting words: twelve, few, extra
  4. Evaluating words: tiresome, pretty, difficult
  5. Words describing size: enormous, high, small
  6. Words describing shape: square, flat, oblong
  7. Words describing a condition: clean, cold, melted
  8. Age indicators: old, ancient, young
  9. Colors: green, pink, black
  10. Nationality or geographical region: American, Scandinavian
  11. Religion: Christian, Islamic, Hindu
  12. Material or composition: brick-and-mortar, silk, clay
  13. Words that are usually nouns used as adjectives: steak knife, junk drawer

See this Oxford University Press quiz for examples following this pattern. Example #7 is properly reordered to A strange small square metal box. (1+4+5+6+12+noun.) A recent article at Slate discusses the semantic development of the conventional sequence of cumulative adjectives in English (although their list is not as long nor specific as the one above).

Witch-burner & Bible-botherer James I of England
Witch-burner/Bible-botherer James I of England & Ireland/James IV of Scotland. After Paul van Somer, c. 1630.

One of the useful aspects of this sequence is the ability to change meaning, feeling or emphasis by putting cumulative adjectives in non-standard order, often for purposes of poetic allusion. Consider this line from the King James Bible:
[…] after the fire a still small voice.
Still (meaning ‘unmoving’) = #7, a condition; small = #5, size. The conventional order is reversed. See various other translations of the same verse: a voice, a soft whisper; the sound of a low whisper; a quiet, whispering voice; a sound of a gentle blowing. One can imagine King James VI and I’s scholars choosing this translation for poetic, rather than doctrinal, reasons.

(There are also such things as non-intersective and anti-intersective adjectives, which slot in between numbers 1 & 2 above, and which will be covered in a future post.)

h/t Vici Casana, M.A. of UC Berkeley Extension & We had a deal, Kyle@MeFi.

 

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