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I Bet You've Never Heard of Coordinate and Cumulative Adjectives

Neither had I

Unless they’re English teachers, language nerds, or writers, most native speakers of English don’t know why only one of the following sounds good:

  1. an expensive red Italian car
  2. a red expensive Italian car
  3. an Italian expensive red car
  4. a red Italian expensive car

They just know it subconsciously. But if you’ve studied English, you might know that adjectives in attributive position (before a noun) generally follow a specific order:

opinion > size > age > shape > colour > origin > material > purpose

That’s why “an expensive red Italian car” (opinion > colour > origin) is the most appropriate one.

So why are all of the following acceptable then?

  1. a beautiful, expensive, fashionable car
  2. an expensive, fashionable, beautiful car
  3. a beautiful, fashionable, expensive car
  4. a fashionable, expensive, beautiful car

I didn’t know the answer until yesterday. 

These are all okay because they’re coordinate adjectives.

Coordinate Adjectives

“Coordinate” = from Latin “of the same order, belonging to the same rank or degree”. 

“Fashionable,” “expensive,” and “beautiful” modify the word “car” in the same way by describing what we think of it.

  • Fashionable: evaluation
  • Expensive: evaluation
  • Beautiful: evaluation

The order of these adjectives is more flexible than that of cumulative ones.

Cumulative Adjectives

“Cumulative” = from Latin “increasing by successive additions.”

In “an expensive red Italian car,” the adjectives do not equally describe the noun. Instead, they progressively add new information to it.

  • Expensive: evaluation
  • Red: colour 
  • Italian: origin

And so we can’t randomly sequence them.

One last thing to notice

We don’t separate cumulative adjectives with commas or the word “and”:

  • I want to buy a new blue Japanese motorbike NOT I want to buy a new, blue, and Japanese motorbike.

But we can with coordinate ones:

  • It was an interesting and beautiful movie.
  • It was a beautiful, interesting movie.
  • It was a beautiful and interesting movie.

I discovered all this after 12 years of English teaching and learning. 

And now I’m happy.

If you want to learn more about coordinate vs cumulative adjectives, read this

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