I was reading the book "Practical English Usage" came across with order of adjectives before a noun. Of course the correct order of them! In the book we are reading descriptive adjective must come before classifiers adjectives. for example, the book presents:

"an old political idea"

"latest educational reform"

"leather dancing shoes"

as the correct structures.

Here, the question is why educational can be considered as a classifier while it doesn't hold for leather ? In general, when an adjective lies in the "descriptive"s or the "classifier"s ?

Perhaps, I am addressing difference between classification and description, somehow. I don't know. It mus be noted that I have read the post related to the question of mine, but it does not answer my question Thanks.

3 Answers 3


The easiest way for a native speaker to distinguish between a descriptive and classifier adjective is to attempt to intensify it. Consider the following:

  • The old train
  • The very old train
  • The steam train
  • *The very steam train

While you can intensify descriptive adjectives (the very old train), you can't do it to classifiers, at least without some kind of strangeness.

Another test that can be applied is paraphrasing the noun phrase as a sentence that uses the verb be. In the example above, you can say the train is old, but not the train is steam.

You can also try to fit in another classifier before the one you're trying to test:

  • The old teacher
  • *The math old teacher

English doesn't allow for this type of structure if the adjective is descriptive. However, this is a one-way test only - you can't test whether something is a classifier because you can have a classifier followed by another:

  • The revolving doors.
  • The automatic revolving doors.

Of course, this is less straightforward for a non-native speaker, who won't necessarily have that intuition that tells you whether a phrase is grammatical or not.

Some combination of the above is probably going to work for you, with the easiest being the intensifier.

For your specific example, let's apply some tests:

  • "an old political idea"
    the political idea is old - descriptive

  • "latest educational reform"
    The latest reform is educational - descriptive

  • "leather dancing shoes"
    The dancing shoes are leather - descriptive

You can find out more by searching for epithet vs classifier tests, which produced some of the tests I've noted above.

  • @Cardinal You can't use conducive that way. You might consider asking a separate question about "It was [a] really conducive answer".
    – user230
    Commented Aug 3, 2015 at 3:53
  • @jimsug :) I am not very focused. As you said, the correct is, it was really conducive or it was [a] really conducive answer, or it was too conducive an answer , ...
    – Cardinal
    Commented Aug 3, 2015 at 9:34
  • This is a great answer, though things don't quite work for "an old political idea". "The old idea is political" and "a very political idea" both make decent sense. Commented Aug 3, 2015 at 11:43
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    @david this is true. Adjectives aren't really in the two categories so much as they are somewhere along a continuum. The best thing for a native speaker to do is to apply multiple tests.
    – jimsug
    Commented Aug 3, 2015 at 21:34

Determining this order of adjectives is not always easy. Try different orders and see which one makes sense:

In your first phrase, both orders are actually possible:

  • an old political idea
  • a political old idea

There is, however, a difference in meaning. In the first one, you're comparing it to other political ideas and describing this one as being old. In the second one, you're comparing it to other old ideas and describing this one as being political.

Next phrase:

  • the latest educational reform
  • the educational latest reform

The latter does not really work. In the first sentence it means: out of all educational reforms, you want the latest one. You don't want the educational one of the latest reform, simply because there already is only one latest reform. So if you think logically, it would make absolutely no sense to add educational before latest in that phrase.

Let's have a look at the shoes:

  • leather dancing shoes
  • dancing leather shoes

Now, shoes don't have the ability to dance, do they? It is the person wearing them who can be dancing, not the shoes themselves, unless you're talking about some sort of fantasy story here. The second phrase dancing leather shoes means that the shoes made of leather are dancing. In the other sentence, dancing shoes can be considered as one unit. The word dancing classifies the shoes. They are shoes specifically designed for dancing. And, the material of which they are made is leather, which is describes those shoes further and so is considered descriptive.

So, it basically comes down to logical thinking and perhaps a bit of gut feeling. What do you think is the main unit, the main idea. Which one is the most important adjective and which other adjectives add meaning on top of that. The ones that just add meaning should come first, while the one that really defines the noun should be right next to that noun.

  • Tanks for your interesting answer, especially the flying shoes ! However, I was seeking for any possible difference between classification and description. I mean why leather cannot be a classifier?
    – Cardinal
    Commented Aug 2, 2015 at 22:26
  • I mean, we define a class "A" and put the leather objects in the A !
    – Cardinal
    Commented Aug 2, 2015 at 22:28
  • Leather can also be used as a classifier. For example: ugly leather shoes, pretty leather shoes, worn leather shoes, new leather shoes. In those examples, leather is the classifier and the other adjective is descriptive. There's not exactly a line that can be drawn between a classifier or a description, it's more like an axis where those two terms are the extremes, if you know what I mean.
    – Vlammuh
    Commented Aug 2, 2015 at 22:30
  • Thanks, I was thinking the same, but i was not sure about it
    – Cardinal
    Commented Aug 2, 2015 at 22:34

"Descriptive" vs "classifier" sounds like something made up to make learning easier.

I would be inclined to think more in terms of open compound nouns. You can't normally break up compounds, so the words have to go next to each other (like all rules, this rule can be violated for effect).

Compound nouns are nouns made of two or more words. They come in three types: "closed" meaning they have nothing between the words (blackboard, highlight); "hyphenated" meaning there's a hyphen between them (laughing-gas, daughter-in-law); and the ones we're interested in here, the "open" ones, which have a space between the words (tennis shoe, swimming pool, washing machine, living room, full moon, real estate, dinner table, coffee mug, African American, North America, bath tub, fish tank, bus stop, head teacher, grey matter, iron maiden)...

There is an infinite number of compound nouns, and whether they are open, hyphenated or closed has no real rule, though as a rule of thumb the more familiar the compound term is, the more likely it is to become hyphenated and eventually closed. Often all three versions are acceptable (ink well, ink-well, inkwell), but equally often, only one or two forms are OK.

Sometimes, open compound nouns become the first half of another compound noun, at which point they often get hyphenated: "washing-machine repairman", "African-American studies", "tennis-shoe holder".

Dancing shoes, educational reforms, political ideas; these are all just compound nouns. You can prefix them with any adjectives you like and not worry about descriptive and classifiers.

The first word of a compound noun usually gets the emphasis.

Now to answer your question: it seems like this emphasized first word of a compound noun is considered to be a "classifier", if it's an adjective.

I can see two ways to learn which is which. The first is to memorize every single compound noun... and there is an infinite number, so that's impossible. The second, is to get to recognize compound nouns, to recognize these word pairs where you'd emphasize the first word and the first word is a necessary part of the term. I think the latter is the way most people learn it, but I imagine it will be very hard when learning the language.


With a bit more googling, looks like these are using Halliday's systemic functional grammar (SFG) terms, and so will probably be useful in a study of functional grammar, but that really seems very esoteric for any ELL course. Reading his An Introduction to Functional Grammar, I see he writes:

A sequence of Classifier + Thing may be so closely bonded that it is very like a single compound noun, especially where the Thing is a noun of a fairly general class, for example train set (cf chemistry set, building set). In such sequences the Classifier often carries the tonic prominence, which makes it sound like the first element in a compound noun. [...]

Note lastly that a particular expression is a cliché does not imply that the modifying element is necessarily a Classifier. -- the 'permanence' is merely a feature of the wording! This in a considered opinion, a heated argument, the promised land, a going concern, the verbs are all Epithets"

Where he says 'cliché', I'd say 'open compound noun'. So seems I was incorrect above: a noun can be compound, and yet have its adjective not be a classifier.

I think, by and large, I disagree with this whole system of categorization. That said, let's try applying the rules he gives to distinguish them to these sentences.

The line between Epithet and Classifier is not a very sharp one, but there are significant differences. Classifiers do not accept degrees of comparison or intensity -- we cannot have a more electric train or a very electric train; and they tend to be organized in mutually exclusive and exhaustive sets -- a train is either electric, steam, or diesel.[...]

And later he writes (about verbs, I admit):

"an old political idea"

A very old, very political idea; an idea that is older and more political than another. That works. So are neither of these Classifiers?

I could not make an organized mutually exclusive, exhaustive set of idea types which includes "political", but I can for "old"; old, young, brand latest, obsolete.

The fact that the idea is all about politics apparently isn't relevant.

"latest educational reform"

The very latest, very educational reform; a reform which is later and more educational than another. That works. Again, I couldn't make a mutually exclusive, exhaustive set of reform types which includes "educational", but I can for "latest", as above.

The fact that the reform is all about education apparently isn't relevant.

"leather dancing shoes"

The very leatheriest, most-dancing shoes; shoes which are leatherier and more dancing than others. "Dancing" really doesn't work, there.

I could make mutually exclusive, exhaustive sets of shoe types based both on material, and on purpose.

The only one that's definitely a Classifier is "Dancing". "Political" and "Educational" both come across as definitely epithets by these rules, while "Old", "latest" and "leather" could count as Classifiers.

My advice: stick with my original suggestion about compound nouns, and it won't steer you far wrong. The other rules are very arbitrary and as we've shown here, give quite misleading results. Not to mention useless results. What's this meant to be teaching you, here?

  • 1
    See epithet vs classifier. All grammar is made-up, but these are fairly well-established terms. Even if descriptive is overly broad.
    – jimsug
    Commented Aug 3, 2015 at 1:12
  • I would assert that your acceptance of very educational is an acceptance of the fact that the reform itself is educational rather than being a reform of education, which is obviously the intended meaning. Also, while you might be able to compile an exhaustive list of mutually exclusive adjectives describing age, remember that you can also intensify this, something that you cannot do to classifiers. Remember that these tests are not conclusive proof on their own, but rather are evidence when used in conjunction with others.
    – jimsug
    Commented Aug 3, 2015 at 2:56
  • 2
    I would also question the grammaticality of very leatheriest - what does that mean? You accept very latest and very old as epithets but then say they are classifiers. Even the internal logic of your post doesn't support your conclusion. I'm sorry, but this post is just... very confusing and suffers from fallacies in logic, as well as a very clear lack of understanding of the nuances in English language, not to mention the theory underpinning this particular system of organisation.
    – jimsug
    Commented Aug 3, 2015 at 3:05
  • "-y" to "-iest" is standard adjective promotion. The phrase "very *-est" is quite normal: the very finest dress, the very best school, etc. Very leatheriest would be the most leathery. And yes, you got the point I was making: there are no conclusive tests of this categorization, and therefore the categorization is pedagogically useless and serves only to confuse. Commented Aug 3, 2015 at 3:18
  • If you're learning English (and why're you asking in ELL if not?), please read all SFG material with a healthy dose of skepticism. It really isn't a widely used grammatical model. It may give you useful insights, but if there are areas where it seems to fail, just accept that every model has its limits. And please don't consider the "nominal group" hypothesis, nor its usage of the terms "Diectic", "Numerative", "Epithet", "Classifier", and "Thing" to be "well-established": it really isn't. Commented Aug 3, 2015 at 3:19

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