I saw a Cambridge grammar article discussing whether to use 'colour pencils' or 'coloured pencils'. This piqued my interest quite a bit. However, the article only talked about how camparatively popular these terms are, it never said which one is grammatically correct. So below are two examples I thought of:

  • What colour/coloured car is your favorite?

  • Which colour/coloured apple would you like, red or green?

In both examples, I am tempted to use 'coloured', since it would be a participle turned adjective. What's interesting is that 'colour' actually seemed to be the more popular of the two whether it's proper usage or not. So which one should I use in either example sentences? Could it be that native speakers prefer using 'colour' because it rolls off the tongue easier?

Thanks a bunch in advance.

  • related: different size/color vs different-sized/colored
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Jan 28, 2017 at 11:44
  • Native speakers may prefer color/colour because it is a simpler form than coloured, which must go through several transformations to become adjectival. It also suggests the color is an applied rather than an intrinsic quality.
    – TimR
    Commented Jan 28, 2017 at 11:57
  • I wonder if this might be a regional preference? In the school where I taught, we used 'coloured pencils' exclusively to describe this item. We could even say, "What colours did you choose from the box of coloured pencils?"
    – WRX
    Commented Jan 28, 2017 at 16:33
  • @WillowRex: I certainly recognise "coloured pencil" as a familiar expression. I think this is different construction though. "Coloured" as a self-contained adjective is normal: coloured pencil, coloured paper, coloured light. It is not normal with a specific colour (we don't say "blue coloured paper" - we might say "a blue coloured pencil", but to my ear that is a "blue [coloured pencil]" not a "[blue coloured] pencil"; and we don't say "What coloured is the pencil?"
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Jan 29, 2017 at 23:51
  • @ColinFine Right, blue paper, red car.
    – WRX
    Commented Jan 30, 2017 at 0:08

1 Answer 1


I think "what colour X" is grammatically anomalous, but is certainly the preferred form (the NOW corpus has just one instance of "what colo(u)red NOUN" in that sense ("what coloured clothes they wear"), against around 280 of "what colo(u)r NOUN").

My hypothesis is that it arises from a combination "what colour is your X?" and loss of the dental before other consonants (as in "what colour(ed) car"). I also note that the form with "colo(u)red" does not have the support of a parallel form in the affirmative, because

My car is coloured red.

is not something we would normally say, except in the unusual circumstance when the colour had been added, for example in a digital photo.

  • Thanks for the answer. It seems to me that neither of them are good constructions. But how else can I rephrase those two examples I provided? Are there any alternatives?
    Commented Jan 28, 2017 at 14:38
  • @Colin Fine If we add an ajunct of place with the "there is" construction ("There is a red car in the garage"), how would it be better said in the interrogative form: 1."What colour is the car there in the garage?", 2."What colour is the car in the garage?", 3."What colour car is there in the garage?", 4."What colour car is in the garage?", 5."What coloured car is there in the garage?", 6."What coloured car is in the garage?". Thank you.
    – Eugene
    Commented Feb 27 at 19:24

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