The royal order of adjectives for fiction editors
Most of the online resources about the royal order of adjectives are for English teachers.
Now, if you’re anything like me, this is a topic you either constantly look up or have a chart pasted over your desk.
Here’s the basic chart for a quick recap:
Of course, there are certain phrases that don’t conform to this order (big bad wolf) for other linguistic reasons.
What do fiction editors need to know?
As fiction editors:
We mostly know the coordinate vs cumulative adjective rules but can’t always remember the royal order
We end up looking up boundary cases (Is “long” a shape or a size? Is “clear” a colour or an observation?) a lot.
In contrast to English teachers, we need:
A table with a lot more examples to make life easier for us
To know when the rules can be broken too
I'm still working on the table, but here are more details about the theory, and when you can break the rules.
Coordinate vs cumulative adjectives
Cumulative adjectives are from different categories and they pile up to have a combined effect.
Example: tatty big blue ball
Coordinate adjectives are within a category and they can be reordered:
Example: expensive, tatty big blue ball or tatty, expensive big blue ball.
Coordinate adjectives need a comma.
The litmus test is whether you can put ‘and’ between them and swap them around or not:
expensive-and-tatty big blue ball
Here are a few useful tips:
A good rule of thumb is that the description moves from the more subjective to the more objective. This also applies to adjectives in the ‘observation’ category. If an observation is more a subjective opinion, it’s good to put it first. For example: horrible, yappy dog
The rules are not edicts. Sometimes they are worth breaking for rhythm and flow.
One good example of this is a poll I ran among editors on the phrase ‘warm, clear water’. A Google search revealed that a comma is used in roughly 50% of cases, so common usage didn't suggest a clear preference.
There was also an ambigity here, as "clear" could be interpreted as an observation or as a colour. If it were considered a colour, then no comma would be needed, as "warm" and "clear" would belong to two different categories. But if "warm" and "clear" were both considered to be observations, then a comma would be needed, and they could be flipped around too (clear, warm water).
In this case, editors agreed that rhythm and flow are important too, and they would consider comma usage and order in relation to the text's tone.
A slower-paced description would suit a comma.
The takeaway message here is that sometimes it's worth abandoning the search for a correct answer when editing fiction. Some publishers even instruct fiction editors to leave the authors' commas alone unless there is an obvious misinterpretation linked to using them.
And if in doubt, Google Ngram and Google Search can be your guide.
What other examples of boundary cases have you come across?
Andrew Hodges, PhD is a developmental editor and line editor who specializes in editing fiction for science fiction and fantasy writers. Their expertise is in worldbuilding and cultural considerations when crafting setting in stories.
They are an advanced professional member of the CIEP, a member of the EFA, and an ALLi partner member.
You can contact them here, or feel free to leave a comment below!