Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

Teaching Adjectives to Language Learners: A Sticky Situation

As a teacher of English as a foreign language, I've developed a bit of an aversion to adjectives. Show me too many and I break out into a prolonged, painful and unpleasant rash. Or should that be painful, prolonged and unpleasant?  Or...?

We all have lessons that we feel obliged to teach which, we know for sure, will create all sorts of problems that will need to be cleared up later. Sometimes you wonder if it is even worth the effort in the first place. A humble lesson on the correct order of adjectives is one such. It usually starts with the best of intentions: students have (perhaps) reached the stage when they want to use, or are expected to use, more than one adjective in front of a noun.

All well and good, for it is better to say delicious, sticky fudge than to say sticky, delicious fudge. Even more important for their development as language learners is that they are being extravagant with their adjectives, though they are likely to get a bit flustered when faced with reordering the adjectives in homemade, hot, tasty apple pie (not when they've just dealt with the fudge — they might be confused, but they are not greedy. )

You may wonder what the problem is. We are perfectly well aware that there is an accepted order for adjective types preceding the noun (though we should remember that in about 60% of world languages, the adjectives follows the noun, so there is a built in problem for many students to start with). Adjective order appears in neat little charts or tables, and often refers to them as the "Royal Order of Adjectives."

Charts and tables usually have course book writers salivating with anticipation — there is nothing like a fair sprinkling of tables in the course book to make it look professional and suitably academic. Many students react well to language being laid out in this manner. Perhaps it seems to offer a perceived order to what otherwise can appear so complex that it borders on chaos.

For the same reason, many students find safety in browsing grammar tables, and (too many) teachers find solace in teaching them. They lend themselves to orderly lessons where clear objectives can be set out and achieved and, most importantly, that achievement measured as ranks of adjectives are sorted and graded and put into the correct order. This mechanism is useful in the classroom for the reasons given above but also because it allows reflection on the precise meaning of words and their place within subjective or objective meaning. This is an essential skill for language learners to achieve as it gives them an insight into the minutiae of how we use language — something that is often taken for granted in the use of a first language.

All that sounds quite positive, I suspect, and I have hardly given a hint of why it causes me and a lot of my students problems over the years. What bothers me can be reduced to the old battles between accuracy versus fluency and accuracy versus authenticity. You can always tell when students have been burning the midnight oil and poring over tables of adjective order because they will turn up in class and proudly prefix every noun that they can lay their hands on with multiple adjectives. There will always be a minimum of three adjectives, occasionally an alarming four, but they will be certain to be in the right order, and, if appearing in a spoken sentence, you can also hear the comma in between each being articulated.

Now, on one level, this is wonderful: your students have grappled with a language issue and conquered it. Except they haven't — the language has conquered them. We should never forget that it is supposed to be the students who are command of the language and not the other way round. While they may be producing very accurate models of adjective-noun groupings, they are hardly likely to sound fluent while doing it, and this is because it is not authentic. Though it is not wrong to use three or more adjectives to puff up a noun, it is actually pretty unusual in everyday speech or writing. The end result is making the articulator sound less authentic rather more, which presumably had been their intention when they relentless memorized the order of Observation, Size, Shape, Age, Color, Origin, Material, Qualifier, Noun.

The solution is to be brutally honest and, after they have learned this, explain that we tend to be quite selective in our use of adjectives. Two would be a normal maximum unless the speaker/writer was being theatrical or striving for effect, and that if more was wanted then different constructions might be employed. For example, we would be unlikely to say (with a straight face, anyway) a fast, powerful, blue, German sports car. To begin with, the color of the car is something of the odd one out here, as three of the adjectives suggest potency (four, if you consider German made products to be so) so an authentic sounding phrase would omit this, or arrange the information into new clauses: that blue, German made sports car is fast and powerful, although blue is technically redundant, as it might suggest that the red sports car wasn't fast and powerful.

The message here is that if we want to give all this information in one event, we tend to reorder the way we do it, and don't simply rely on adjective order. I always advise my students not to use more than two adjectives at any one time unless they are firmly convinced that three is going to get their message across better while sounding authentic, and that three only usually works — as in the car example above — when we include origin and a qualifier, German and sports, in this case.

It is also a good time to consider bringing in a lesson or two about the use of adverbs to qualify adjectives. This is not only a good authentic use of qualifying a noun, it naturally tends to limit the number of adjectives used. If we do this then we are likely to end up with unbelievably sticky fudge, incredibly tasty apple pie and impressively fast sports car, all of which sounds like wonderfully authentic language.

The message, then, is to beware when you are enticed by one of those attractive, brightly colored tables of adjective orders in the course book. It can open up a whole host of issues that won't be dealt with lightly and you have to be ready for a difficult, frustrating, lengthy time ahead.


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Fitch O'Connell has been a teacher for longer than he cares to remember. He works as a materials writer and teacher trainer. In 2003 he set up the acclaimed BritLit project for the British Council in Portugal, and has worked since then to help establish a new place for literature in English language teaching. He also contributes to the WordPowered website, which brings together teachers of English by using short stories, poetry and film. He now works as a freelance consultant and is based in Europe. Click here to read more articles by Fitch O'Connell.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday September 11th 2013, 3:58 PM
Comment by: Daniel B. (Bozeman, MT)
I think there are two typos in this fine article. At the end of the third paragraph I assume it should read "they are not greedy." In the last paragraph it appears that is should read "when you are enticed."

[Fixed! —Ed.]

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