The Grammarphobia Blog

A black perfect little dress?

Q: Why do we say “a perfect little black dress” instead of “a black perfect little dress”?

A: Guess what, there’s a general formula for the order of adjectives in English. (Isn’t there a general formula for everything?)

This is why we say “a perfect little black dress” instead of “a black perfect little dress.”

As The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language explains, size usually comes before color: “A large black sofa represents the preferred order while a black large sofa is very unnatural” (page 452).

Well, that explains “little black dress.” But why does “perfect” come before “little” and “black”? Read on.

Cambridge distinguishes between two kinds of “pre-head modifiers” (for our purposes, these are adjectives preceding a noun): the “early” ones and the “residual” ones.

As a rule, the “early” ones come first, and they account for things like quantity (as in “two,” or “enough,” or “another”); superlatives (“largest”); order (“second”); and rank or importance (“key”). 

After these come the following kinds of adjectives, which Cambridge lists in this order:

(1) Evaluative (these express a speaker’s subjective opinion), as in “good,” “bad” “attractive,” “tasty,” “valuable,” “perfect.”

(2) General property (these represent a quality that can be observed objectively, like size, taste, and smell, as well as human characteristics). Examples include “big,” “fat,” “thin,” “sweet,” “ear-splitting,” “long,” “jealous,” “pompous,” “wise.”

(3) Age, as in “old,” “new,” “young,” “modern,” “ancient,” “up-to-date.”

(4) Color, as in “black, “green,” “crimson,” “powder-blue.”

(5) Provenance, as in “French,” “Chinese,” “Venezuelan.”

(6) Manufacture (these describe what something is made of, or how or by whom it’s made). Examples include “woolen,” “wooden,” “cotton,” “iron,” “carved,” “enameled,” “Sainsbury’s.”  

(7) Type, as in “men’s,” “women’s,” “children’s,” and words (often nouns) like those underlined in these phrases: “sports car,” “photograph album,” “dessert spoon,” “passenger aircraft,” “laptop computer,” “winter overcoat,” “digestive biscuit,” “summer’s day.”

Cambridge gives the following as an example using all seven kinds of adjectives: “an attractive tight-fitting brand-new pink Italian lycra women’s swimsuit.”

This explanation isn’t rigid, but it shows how adjectives generally fall into line.

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