What are Out-of-order Adjectives? How to Write Them?

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Let’s look at brief context before we dive into out-of-order adjectives.

In a sentence, adjectives can be used attributively or predicatively:

I own a blue car. [Attributive adjective]

My car is blue. [Predicative adjective]

In case of attributive adjective, the adjective comes immediately before the noun it describes. In case of predicative adjective, comes after the linking verb while still describing the noun. Of the two, attributive adjectives are far more commonly used.

We can use multiple attributive adjectives in a sentence. Example:

Sleepy, bored Susan put the book aside.

Out-of-order adjectives have nothing to do with predicative adjectives. They apply to only multiple attributive adjectives, like shown in the above example. Second, within attributive adjectives, we can write out-of-order adjectives for coordinate adjectives but not for cumulative adjectives. This has been shown pictorially below:

Hierarchy of adjectives

(Feel free to use this image for own use, using the above link for attribution.)

That was the context. Let’s now dive into out-of-order adjectives.

What is out-of-order adjective?

Out-of-order adjectives are attributive adjectives that are out of their normal order, implying that instead of coming before a noun, they come after the noun. Example:

Sleepy, bored Susan put the book aside. [Adjectives in order]

Susan, sleepy and bored, put the book aside. [Out-of-order adjectives]

Let’s take another example that has three adjectives.

The rescue team finally located the cold, numb, trapped mountaineers. [Adjectives in order]

The rescue team finally located the trapped mountaineers, cold and numb. [Out-of-order adjectives. We’ve shifted two similar adjectives to the back position.]

Rules to write out-of-order adjectives

1. Adjectives are usually pushed to the back in a pair. If there are two adjectives, put both at the back. If there are three adjectives, put two of them at the back. Four adjectives can be overwhelming for the readers, so avoid them.

2. Out-of-order adjectives are not separated by commas but by coordinating conjunctions such as and, but, yet, and or.

3. Out-of-order adjectives are separated from the rest of the sentence by a pair of commas if they fall in the middle of a sentence and by a comma if they fall at the end of a sentence.

How to write out-of-order adjectives?

Let’s take this up through an example.

Start with your base sentence:

The downpour flooded the city.

Think of 2-3 adjectives that describe downpour: heavy, unrelenting, and merciless.

Put one in the front and two at the back:

The heavy downpour, unrelenting and merciless, flooded the city.

If you noticed, unrelenting is a present participle, which functions as an adjective. Using them can significantly expand your options of adjectives.

So far, we’ve looked at one-word adjectives in front or back positions, but even phrases that function like an adjective, especially participial phrases, can come in front or back positions. See examples of some of these in the next section.

Examples of out-of-order adjectives

1. My determination, unshakeable and lasting, saw me through the tough times. [Lasting is a present participle functioning as an adjective.]

2. The imposing mall, buzzing with shoppers and bursting with the latest brands, stood out among its peers. [Here, two present participial phrases – buzzing with shoppers and bursting with the latest brands – are functioning as adjectives at the back. In the front, we’ve a present participle functioning as an adjective.]

3. The two little squirrels, sprightly and playful, ran up and down the tree.

4. The air-conditioner, decrepit and crying for maintenance, hummed in the background. [A present participial phrase crying for maintenance is functioning as an adjective here.]

5. Soothed by the balmy weather, Tom, tired and hungry, slept on the lawn. [A past participial phrase soothed by the balmy weather is functioning as an adjective in the front and a past participle tired is functioning as an adjective at the back.]

6. Trying to cement his place in the team, the player, tired but alert, caught the ball. [Here but is the coordinating conjunction.]

7. Frustrated with the delay, the patient, sick and alone, waited for his appointment.

8. The driver, wanting to reach early and seeing no traffic police, jumped the red light.

9. The manager, overworked by multiple projects and stressed by unending deadlines, gave a long, hard thought to his future. [Two sets of adjectives: one set is out of order, the other is in order]

10. The mood, self-congratulatory and rosy, wasn’t conducive for hard, honest feedback. [Again, two sets of adjectives]

11. My boss, disappointed and angry with the results, slammed the books on the table.

12. The security personnel, overbearing and indifferent, ignored our pleas to get a closer look at the celebrity.

13. The dog, snarling and barking, chased the cat.

14. Ronaldo fired the goal, sending the large crowd, expectant and restless, into a frenzy.

15. After cleaning the entire house, Mac, sore and hungry, needed a break.

How out-of-order adjectives help your writing?

Out-of-order adjective is yet another tool for writers to enhance their writing. Fiction writers use them to change rhythm and break monotony of regular adjectives. The little speed bump in reading out-of-order adjectives puts the spotlight on them.

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