Adjectives order: opinion or size?



Grammatically speaking, opinion goes before size, i.e. opinion, size, age, shape, color, origin, material, purpose. However, I saw this example in Practical English Usage, third edition, page 12:

a big beautiful garden

Or you have probably heard the known expression Big Beautiful Woman (BBW).
What am I missing?


Posted 2013-12-03T04:32:11.900

Reputation: 2 141

Thanks, but it doesn't answer my question. – Mori – 2013-12-03T05:12:14.293

I have only app version of PEU. Under which item a big beautiful garden was given? – Damkerng T. – 2013-12-03T05:23:14.157

Entry 16 >> adjectives (5): with and – Mori – 2013-12-03T05:35:47.773

Thanks. I can find it now. It seems to contradict the rules that come before indeed. However, I learned a few things from my old question: the rules is not absolute; the way it sounds counts how easy it will roll off your tongue); and it is useful to avoid ambiguity (I suspect that the author's might know some place named "Big Garden", and a big beautiful garden could avoid that he might mean a beautiful Big Garden, but that is purely my speculation.) – Damkerng T. – 2013-12-03T05:43:55.557

By the way, I'm reading I think you will find it useful.

– Damkerng T. – 2013-12-03T05:44:34.527

1"beautiful big garden" and "big beautiful garden" are both grammatical but have different meanings (the first a big garden that is beautiful, the second a garden that is big and beautiful). – Francis Davey – 2014-12-23T20:43:52.383



It's worth copying in a line quoted by the top answer when this was asked about on ELU...

"Unfortunately, the rules for adjective order are very complicated, and different grammars disagree about the details".

I'd also have to say that "opinion" is a very slippery (not to say subjective) word category. If beautiful is an "opinion" word then the same must surely be true of ugly. But apparently the rules are different...

In short, what OP is missing is that "order of adjectives" is a complex issue. But note that doesn't mean "different grammars" disagree about what's correct (these days, "correct" just means "most common").

The reality is actual native speakers tend to be consistent about the order they prefer for any given set of adjectives, but grammarians/linguists struggle to describe/define those preferences in a way that would enable non-native speakers to predict what form the natives will choose (i.e. - formal "rules").

But OP should also note that not all sets of adjectives will be consistently sequenced the same way by all native speakers (a point I hope the above two charts encapsulate, as well as showing change over time).

As a native speaker, I know instinctively which of these sequences is "normal", but the rules don't help...

big fat ugly woman 52 results in Google Books
big ugly fat woman 1 result
ugly big fat woman no results
ugly fat big woman no results
fat big ugly woman no results
fat ugly big woman no results

In short, it's probably worth learners taking note of the basic sequence...

1: number
2: judgement/attitude
3: size, length, height
4: age
5: colour
6: origin
7: material
8: purpose

...but you've only got to look at the comments against the ELU question and answers to see that it doesn't work in every case (and things get particularly imprecise around category #2 above).

FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica

Posted 2013-12-03T04:32:11.900

Reputation: 52 587

I think perhaps it's because "big" (and "huge") grammatically fall into the "opinion" category for some reason that I can't fathom - other than that's just how it seems to be - but can also be seen in "big beautiful women", "big ugly sculpture" and "big bad wolf". Other "size" adjectives such as "large/ugly", "large/beautiful" follow the rule more closely:

– Matt – 2013-12-03T06:35:26.917

@Matt: I don't think the "opinion" category is worth much at all in terms of predictive capacity. After all, have you ever heard any other sequence for *tall dark handsome*?

– FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica – 2013-12-03T06:51:36.960

Sure. These categories are advisory at best. In practice I think most English speakers do "number > [various] > age > shape > color > origin > material > purpose", with the order of the [various] category being only very roughly "opinion > size", but being routinely trumped by what just happens to be in everyday use. People say "big bad" almost certainly because of the "big bad wolf", rather than because of any underlying "rules". Perhaps it's the case that "tall dark handsome" is just a generic adjectival phrase meaning "dashing", and "big bad" being a phrase meaning bad? Who knows :/ – Matt – 2013-12-03T06:59:57.437

@Matt: I wouldn't infer too much based on collocations involving *big* - it nearly always comes first (unless it's preceded by "number", as in two big strong young {men}). I really do think "opinion/judgement/attitude" is an almost worthless "bucket" category here. In fact, because of the scope for misclassification, it's actually probably got a negative value as a "rule".

– FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica – 2013-12-03T07:09:56.303

Also huge for some reason fits like big in that it'll always come first (two huge old blocks of flats, not two old huge blocks of flats). I'm not arguing in favour of the opinion category, I'm just saying I also don't like the size category. Although many of these rules are fairly firm (number > [various] > age > shape > color > origin > material > purpose), the rules that go inside the [various] category are really not firm at all, and there isn't a simple rule that "size > opinion", not just because "opinion" is a subjective, but because "size" is too. – Matt – 2013-12-03T08:46:14.867

It's probably just the case that prescriptivists got carried away over-generalizing the rules. Whilst some parts of adjective order can be learnt via helpful rules and categories - some relative ordering (for example anything involving "big" or "huge") defies logic, and just requires you to learn them by rote. – Matt – 2013-12-03T08:50:57.377

@Matt: It would be a brave (not to say foolhardy) *prescriptivist* who'd get bogged down in trying to set out rules telling people what they should say. How would they explain the fact that "big ugly bastard" is 50 times more common than "ugly big bastard", but "ugly little bastard" is over 100 times more common than "little ugly bastard"? (it's no wonder prescriptivism has gone out of fashion! :)

– FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica – 2013-12-03T19:49:06.140