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English Corner

Scientific English grammar and style   English Corner   Glossary of English grammar and style  

English Corner 6: order of sequential adjectives

Paired adjectives are adjectives that both describe a noun, pronoun or noun phrase, but which can modify it in the same or different ways depending on whether they are co-ordinate or cumulative adjectives. Co-ordinate adjectives, which modify the noun in the same way, are of equal importance and are separated by commas. Cumulative adjectives, which modify the noun in different ways, are necessarily of unequal importance and are not separated by commas and their order is crucial for the information they convey. The importance of the meaning of each adjective reflects its position relative to the noun, with the adjective closest taking precedence, as the meaning is ranked from right-to-left.

Co-ordinate paired adjectives can be reversed without a change in meaning
The meaning of [A healthy fertile marmoset) is no different from that of [A fertile healthy marmoset], so they are of equal importance and thus co-ordinate adjectives, separable by a comma [A fertile, healthy marmoset] or [A healthy, fertile marmoset].
The meaning of [The overweight former student], with emphasis more on the profession (no longer a student) than his weight (still overweight), provides different information from [The former overweight student], which emphasises the excess weight of someone still a student. They are therefore unequal in importance and thus cumulative adjectives, requiring no comma, but as shown, their order is important.

Co-ordinate paired adjectives can be separated by and without a change in meaning
The meaning of [A fertile and healthy marmoset/A healthy and fertile marmoset] is no different from that of [A fertile healthy marmoset/A healthy fertile marmoset], so they are co-ordinate adjectives, which should be separated by a comma [A fertile, healthy marmoset/A healthy, fertile marmoset].
The meaning of [The former and overweight student], implying that the person is no longer overweight and no longer a student, is different from that of [The former overweight student], where the emphasis is only on his previous weight. These are therefore cumulative adjectives that require no comma [The former overweight student].

Some pairs of adjectives can only be cumulative
As seen above, attempts to use former and overweight as co-ordinate adjectives, whether written as [a former, overweight student] or [an overweight, former student], brings a contradiction: one adjective states that the person is no longer a student, whereas the other states he is an overweight student. This mismatch of adjectives implies that they only can be used as cumulative adjectives.

Co-ordinate adjectives provide unconnected information
Used as co-ordinate adjectives, a [fertile, healthy monkey] is a monkey which is both fertile and healthy, and likewise a [healthy, fertile monkey] is a monkey which is healthy and fertile; as they mean the same thing, the order of the adjectives is not important.

Cumulative adjectives provide added information
Used as cumulative adjectives, a [fertile healthy monkey], with healthy closer to the noun, describes primarily a healthy monkey: a healthy monkey which is fertile. The converse, a [healthy fertile monkey] is about a fertile monkey: a fertile monkey which is healthy. For both, the order is important, hence the term cumulative.
Used as cumulative adjectives, in [The former overweight student] overweight lies closer to the noun and so takes precedence over former, so we know that the person still is a student but now no longer is overweight. On the other hand, in [The overweight former student] the emphasis is more on his occupation than his weight, and so provides different information; he may no longer be a student but he is still overweight.
To describe a student who is no longer overweight can also be stated by providing an adverb to modify a single adjective [The formerly overweight student].

The order of some cumulative adjectives is dictated by what should be emphasised.

With adjectives describing a methodand a recipient
If [male contraception] meaning (contraception for males) and [hormonal contraception] meaning (contraception by means of hormones) are to be combined, should [male hormonal contraception] or [hormonal male contraception] be used? The adjective to be emphasised is placed first, because it will be read first (from left-to-right).
Thus, when contrasting hormonal contraception between men and women, the common factor (hormonal contraception) would come last, so that the user (males or females) is emphasised by being read first [Male hormonal contraception (reading from right-to-left: contraception by means of hormones (hormonal contraception) for males) is more difficult to develop than female hormonal contraception].
On the other hand, when contrasting types of contraception available for men, the common factor (male contraception) would come last, so that the nature of the contraception (hormonal or otherwise) is emphasised by being read first [Hormonal male contraception (from right-to-left: contraception for males (male contraception) by means of hormones] is easier to develop than non-hormonal male contraception.

With adjectives describing a source of spermatozoa with species
Given [epididymal spermatozoa] means (spermatozoa obtained from the epididymis), [ejaculated spermatozoa] means (spermatozoa obtained from an ejaculate) and [human spermatozoa] means (spermatozoa obtained from men); if the ejaculated spermatozoa come from men, which order of the adjectives is best?
For the individual phrases, the most natural order is to place the species first [human ejaculated spermatozoa] (right-to-left: spermatozoa obtained from an ejaculate (ejaculated spermatozoa) from men). This phrase is clear, as the first two words (human ejaculated) on their own make no sense and need a noun (spermatozoa) to define.
The alternative word order [ejaculated human spermatozoa] (right-to-left: spermatozoa obtained from men (human spermatozoa) obtained from an ejaculate) conveys rather clumsily the same information, but in this case the first two words (ejaculated human) make grammatical, if comical sense, with the meaning that the man had been ejaculated! This can be salvaged by separating the adjectives with a comma, to make them co-ordinate, rather than cumulative, adjectives [ejaculated, human spermatozoa].
However, the former word order would be correct if spermatozoa from the two sources in the same species are to be compared, when the common factor (species) would come last, so that the different sources are emphasised by being read first: [In this study epididymal and ejaculated human spermatozoa were compared].
Conversely, if spermatozoa from the same source in different species are to be compared, the common factor (sperm source) would come last, so that the different species are emphasised by being read first: [In this study human and monkey epididymal spermatozoa were compared].

In some cases only one word order is permissible
Sperm is used as an adjective in [sperm maturation] meaning (maturation of spermatozoa), as is epididymal in [epididymal maturation] meaning (maturation [development] of the epididymis). In [epididymal spermatozoa] though, epididymal describes the source of spermatozoa (from the epididymis). When describing the process of sperm maturation occurring within the epididymis, epididymal is used in yet another way with the meaning (in the epididymis).
This process should be defined as [Epididymal sperm maturation] (from right-to-left: maturation of spermatozoa (sperm maturation) occurring in the epididymis), since the alternative [Sperm epididymal maturation] makes no sense, confusing (maturation of the epididymis [epididymalmaturation]) with (maturation of spermatozoa [sperm maturation]).

By Dr Trevor G Cooper (ctrevorg@gmail.com)

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