Red, big car.

Huh? Hang on a minute – there’s something wrong with the above phrase, surely. Well, yes there is. Big, red car sounds better, more natural somehow, but why is that? 

The English language, with all of its weird and wonderful rules, ranks adjectives together in a very particular order, sometimes referred to as the Royal Order of Adjectives:

  1. Opinion
  2. Size
  3. Age 
  4. Shape 
  5. Colour
  6. Origin
  7. Material
  8. Purpose

So, big (size), red (colour) car sounds better than red (colour), big (size) car because the order is corrected when the size of the car comes before its colour.  

Here’s some more examples to explore:

Our tin, old car makes a rattling noise 

Her leather, green shoes are beautiful

His American, perfect teeth shone as he smiled

How would you correctly reorder these in relation to the noun (in CAPS)?

DOG: Black, lovely, old

DRESS: Wedding, silk, ivory

BAG: Italian, big, snakeskin

Native speakers intrinsically know when something’s out as this order is ingrained in readers from an early age, which is why red, big car just doesn’t cut it! But why do we have to follow this rule? The truth is that no one really knows why this order exists – rolling with it is the best option. Read your work aloud – we cannot emphasise this enough, as what sometimes looks okay on paper may indeed sound altogether wrong when spoken.  

For the rule breakers out there, it would be fantastic to find a way to tweak this – but it may not be possible!