I have been trying to understand adjective order for many days; however, when there are present, past participle, or compound nouns in the same phrase, I don’t know how to order those adjectives. Could you please explain how to choose the order of these adjectives?

These are phrases which I made myself. Could you please check them for me so that I might better understand them?

  1. A small torn old sleeping bag

  2. A small broken old car or a small old broken car?

  3. A broken blue car

  4. A ten-year-old brown-haired boy

  • 3
    Be careful using so many adjectives together like that. Here's an example of how I would describe that sleeping bag: "I had to spend the night in a ratty sleeping bag that was too small to cover me." You still convey that it was small, old, and in poor condition, but without putting so many adjectives in a row. In my opinion it sounds awkward to use three adjectives in a row like that.
    – Gray
    Commented Nov 25, 2013 at 16:11
  • 3
    See english.stackexchange.com/questions/1155/…
    – Hellion
    Commented Nov 25, 2013 at 19:51

2 Answers 2


The one you are relating the subject with comes closer to the subject and the remaining fits anywhere.

For example, you are talking about racing cars and so you say:

A white racing car, An old white racing car, etc.

So, here the adjective which comes closer to the subject depends on the context of your mentioning it.

In your example, if you are talking about Brown-haired boys, you say:

A ten-year old brown-haired boy, A fat, ten-year old brown-haired boy.


This is not an answer per se. It's just something I want to share but a bit too long for comments.

I (not a native English speaker) normally uses two approaches to deal with such exercises, with high success (though not 100%).

  • One approach is to read it out aloud and see if it sounds right.

  • My other approach is to see how difficult (or how easy) that quality can be changed. For example, a sleeping bag was made as a sleeping bag. It can be old after some time past. It can be torn too. So I would say a torn sleeping bag or an old sleeping bag, since it's a sleeping bag anyway. Another example is a blue car that is broken. It's likely that it was made blue when it was manufactured, and turned out to be broken later. So I would say a broken blue car.

The big vs. small and young vs. old are quite tricky for me, since they usually go together for living things such as animals and people (e.g. a big old man, and a small young boy). So my guts usually said "big old" or "small young", and in this case "small old", which is likely to be off, when compared to native speakers.

To me, if I had to say those examples, I would personally say a torn small and old sleeping bag, a broken small and old car, a broken blue car, a ten-year-old brown-haired boy.

  • NOTE 1: I feel that small and old can swap their positions, and they're quite awkward to say. That's why I added the word and automatically when I tried to say them.

  • NOTE 2: I prefer a ten-year-old brown-haired boy instinctively, perhaps because from my world view, people's age can change easily than their hair color. But that's just my view. Actually I would say a brown-haired, ten-year-old boy is fine too.)

For more details, I would like to recommend reading Mari-Lou A's answer in https://ell.stackexchange.com/a/13577/3281.

  • 4
    "Small old man" sounds fine to me. "Old small man" sounds strange. A small old man is an old man who is small, whereas an old small man is a small man who is old. The first one brings up images of a little old guy, and the second brings up images of an old, but doll-sized man. We often say "little old man" or "little old lady" rather than small. It's a little condescending to say this though. You'd never say it to someone who was elderly. You'd say, "I helped a little old lady cross the street", but not "you are a nice little old lady." You'd just say "you are a nice lady."
    – Gray
    Commented Nov 25, 2013 at 16:20

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