Advent Calendar 5 – “Germans have blue, small shirts”


“blue small shirts”

Hello everyone,

and welcome to ____ . And today it’s time for grammar. Get ready for a combination of two of your favorite pain in the butts…

adjectives and order

Ewww. Sounds … uh… promising.
English has somewhat clear rules in which the order adjectives are lined up.

  • a beautiful young man… yes
  • a young beautiful man… nope 

Only the first one is idiomatic because English likes to have opinion first and then descriptive adjectives. At least that’s what they say in books.  But we don’t want to talk about English.
We want to see how it is in German. And it’s quite… uh… unique.
The good news is: there isn’t the one fixed order. Yeay!

  • das kleine, blaue T-Shirt
  • das blaue, kleine T-Shirt

These are both correct and used. The first one might be a bit more idiomatic, but it’s really nothing to waste any time studying.
And now for the bad news, the bad, annoying, “I hate German” news: this is only true if the adjectives are separated by a comma. If there’s no comma, the order kind of matters. Yup… a comma.
I’ll give you a second to cry now.

So let’s see what’s up with that.
Of course, the comma is only a symptom. It shows us if the adjectives are of equal importance or if there’s a hierarchy.
What do I mean by equal importance?
Well, take this little dialogue here.

  • “Guess what. I just saw a unicorn.”
    “OMG… how was it?!?!?”
    “Pink… oh and old.”

I hope you can see what I’m going for. Here, the adjectives are on the same level, so to speak. They’re both features that describe the unicorn.
And how does it look when they’re NOT on the same level? Well, let’s see.

  • “Have you seen the old unicorn today yet? ”
    “Which one… the pink one or the blue one?”
    “The blue one.”

Here, the adjectives have a hierarchy. Old unicorn is established as a unit here, as a thing. And this thing is then described by an adjective.
Here’s another example

  • I  like unicorns that are tall, pink and twinkling.
  • Tall [twinkling unicorns] are harder to find than pink [twinkling unicorns].

In the first sentence, all the adjectives are on the same level. In the second one, twinkling unicorn is a unit.

Cool. And what effect does that have for the order of adjectives?
Well, if they’re on the same level, you can switch them around and in writing, you’d separate them by a comma.

  • Ich mag das große, glänzende, pinke / pinke, große, glänzende /…. Einhorn.
  • (The unicorn I like matches the following criteria: … )

And if they’re NOT on the same level, the adjective closer to the noun forms usually forms the unit.

  • Ich mag das große pinke Einhorn.
  • Ich mag das pinke große Einhorn.

The first one implies that there are several pink unicorns and I like the one among them that is tall and the other way around.
Now you’re of course all like  “Wait, in writing this is all well and good but what about spoken German? I mean… you can’t really speak a comma.”
Well, in spoken German you’d use aural emphasis  to make it clear. A slight boost for the word that’s actually in charge of the description.

  • Ich mag das GROßE pinke Einhorn (…not the small one).

The problem is… emphasis can totally override order. So we could also say

  • Ich mag das PINKE große Einhorn (… not the blue one) .
  • Ich mag das pinke GROßE Einhorn (… not the small one).

And this brings us to the bottom line of it all which is:

Don’t sweat it.

Unless you’re in C1 and aiming for written fluency, the order of adjectives is nothing to think about. I don’t think I ever had a moment of “Wait, the adjective order he just used was wrong!”. And I spot language glitches like a hawk spots Russian expansionism – everywhere.
Get it? Get it? Meh…
Anyway, so yeah… this was our look at the order of adjectives in German and why it really isn’t worth worrying about it.
What’s you experience with it? Did a teacher ever correct something like this? Or have you learned any rules about it in school? And is it really as strict in English as the textbook sources make it sound? Let me know in the comments below and maybe win today’s giveaway. Oh and of course if you have any questions about this, let me know as well.
Schönen, entspannten Tag und bis morgen :).

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5 years ago

Thanks for the babove

5 years ago

This discussion leaves out that the lack of a comma between adjectives, in written English, indicates that the first adjectives modify the last adjective in the string. Such adjectives are actually classified as adverbs.

The bright, blue car means the car is bright (perhaps a lot of lights are shining on it) and also blue. Here, bright is an adjective applying to car because of the comma. It may be that the car is bright because the particular shade of blue makes it bright but the sentence does not say that.

The bright blue car (without the comma) indicates that the car is bright blue. Here, bright is officially an adverb as it applies to the adjective blue. The result of the bright blue color may be that car is also bright but the sentence does not say that.

Needless to say English speakers don’t care about and therefore don’t draw such a distinction in conversation. If it is important in conversation, and it usually isn’t, the sentence is just reworked to make it clear.

Robert Lamborn
Robert Lamborn
5 years ago

This has been an absolutely fascinating post and sting of comments. I’m a native English speaker and had never given much thought to adjective order. My take is closer to berlingrabers: while there are (unconscious) word-order rules, there is actually is a good bit of flexibility too. The best writing will ensure clarity by (generously) using commas to separate terms, and by using hyphens to make compound modifiers (“still-warm,” “hour-old”).

Though not absolute, a good rule of thumb is to think of the adjectives cascading into one another, modifying the word (or term) that follows along to the right: the less factual and more ephemeral drift farther to the left; the more concrete, factual, and immutable slide rightward towards the noun.

Jennifer Duke
Jennifer Duke
5 years ago

So in American English there is a comma sometimes used with adjectives. Wikipedia has the easiest explanation.

Wikipedia- ‘A comma is used to separate coordinate adjectives; that is, adjectives that directly and equally modify the following noun. Adjectives are considered coordinate if the meaning would be the same if their order were reversed or if and were placed between them. For example:

The dull, incessant droning but the cute little cottage.
The devious lazy red frog suggests there are lazy red frogs (one of which is devious), while the devious, lazy red frog does not carry this connotation.’

I will say this, though, as an English degree holder, I always notice when someone doesn’t correctly use the comma.

5 years ago

English is very strict about the order of adjectives, but I would say just about 0% of schools cover it. English speakers just kind of feel what is correct. Most people don’t find out there is an order until they watch some YouTube video titled “Why do is it Big Red Truck instead of Red Big Truck”? and wow even typing Red Big Truck hurts my brain.

5 years ago

Just noticed an example: I have a jar of “Griechische gemischte marinierte Oliven.” That would sound really odd in English – “Greek mixed marinated olives.” I think either “marinated mixed Greek olives” or “mixed marinated Greek olives” would be OK, but nobody would ever put “Greek” first. Does the German version sound at all odd?

I do agree with Andy above that this isn’t something to worry about so much – mixing up adjective order in English usually won’t keep you from being understood. It’s more something to work on if you really want to polish your English and work toward native-level proficiency. (And it’s certainly good to work on if you intend to write for publication.)

5 years ago

I think this makes a lot of sense because I often speak colloquially this way in English. Even if “the young beautiful man” sounds off, “I only like YOUNG beautiful men” doesn’t, because that emphasis kind of puts ‘beautiful men’ as a unit.

5 years ago

Adjektives use COMMAS ?? I thought that was one difference to English. Sigh.

Marion Haftel
5 years ago

In English if you say “blue small shirts”, you would be emphasizing that there are small shirts in the color blue: As in, “we have BLUE small shirts, but not red ones”. I had no idea we have actual rules about adjective order in English. In school we never studied this. You just know. I have fresh empathy for my German friend who cannot tell me why something is correct auf Deutsch, but only that it sounds right. Wow! Something that is more complicated in English than in German. Who knew? Because it really does sound weird in a different order.

Paul E Ramoni Jr
Paul E Ramoni Jr
5 years ago

Question: How are multiple adjectives, with and without the appropriate comma, declined when there is no deteriminer for the noun, ie der, das, die? Are they all declined to the same appropriate case, or is the first declined to der, das, die ending, and the rest declined with -e or -en?

Paul E Ramoni Jr
Paul E Ramoni Jr
5 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

So it would be Sie hab ein kleines gutes Kleid an, but Sie hab das kleine gute Kleid an?

Paul E Ramoni Jr
Paul E Ramoni Jr
5 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

hat, :-(, Mein Fehler.

5 years ago

You should not call it Advent if you are going to charge money for people to see it.

5 years ago

I do not think adjective order in English is anything to worry about. You will be understood. Also, English people do change the supposedly correct adjective order when speaking and sometimes in writing, either because their speaking quickly and confusedly, or because they wish to give emphasis to certain qualities of the noun. The “old little lady”, in speech wouldn’t sound wrong in contexts in which the age of the lady is being emphasised.

Andy Murray.

5 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

You do have to verbally emphasize it just a bit. In writing you’d add a comma, because otherwise it looks odd.

5 years ago

English adjective order is very strict, although until very recently (having read about it in a newspaper article) I had no idea it even existed as a concept. Although all native English speakers know the rule instinctively and without thinking, I’d guess 99.9% of them have no idea a rule exists. Ask an English person (or any native speaker of English) why it’s “little old lady” and not “old little lady” and they will have no idea why – only that “old little lady” sounds terribly alien. I was astonished to learn there are 9 categories of adjective ordered as follows: Quantity, Value/opinion, Size, Temperature, Age, Shape, Colour, Origin, Material.


three lovely little still-warm hour-old round caramel-coloured French sponge cakes. = right
three little brown sponge French hour-old still-warm caramel-coloured round cakes = gibberish

So glad German keeps it simple!

I’ve started learning French again and it too has made me appreciate some of German’s simpler aspects – I’m talking about verb conjugation here. French has 7 past tenses for goodness sake, not to mention conditional AND subjunctive. German, I just started you seeing in a warm fuzzy light.

5 years ago
Reply to  aoind

Yeah, somebody or other wrote a book where he points this out, and an excerpt from that has been making the rounds on the social media.

Not every bit of the order of adjectives is equally strict, if that makes sense. Like in the example above, mixing things up completely yields gibberish that you can’t really understand, but some of them could be moved around without it ceasing to be idiomatic.

– three lovely little still-warm hour-old round caramel-coloured French sponge cakes = most natural/neutral
– three lovely round little hour-old still-warm caramel-coloured French sponge cakes = fine, emphasizes shape
– three lovely still-warm hour-old little round caramel-coloured French sponge cakes = still OK to me, emphasizes condition

Obviously, there are limits. Number/quantity is definitely first. Origin and material (color too) kind of feel like they’re closest to the essence of what something is; in the example, “sponge cake” is the most basic description of what kind of cake it is, so that’s going to be fixed, just like “chocolate cake,” “buckwheat cake,” or whatever. Evaluation/opinion tends to come early because it seems like priority information, something you should know right away.

But to me, the relative placement of all that stuff in the middle is a little more flexible, especially if there’s a long string of adjectives. And some adjectives just feel better in different spots, even if they fit clearly into certain categories. “Big” and “little” just fit differently into the flow of sentences – Clifford (a children’s book/TV character) is and must always be “the big friendly dog,” not the “friendly big dog.” But “friendly little dog” sounds way better than “little friendly dog,” at least if you’re not trying to emphasize one adjective or the other.

And you might stick certain types of pairs together to “explain” the first of the pair. To me, “three lovely caramel-coloured still-warm hour-old little round French sponge cakes” works too, because the color, temperature, and age are likely the particular features that make the cakes lovely, if that makes sense.

So yeah, kudos to German for being more relaxed about these things. :)