Lesson #279: ‘That tall, proud man’ – ‘Pride and Prejudice’ (Austen) and Adjective Word Order in English

The book was interesting and it was old and it was long and it was a French book too.

This is a very odd sentence!

❔ Do you know how it could be improved?

In a nutshell (in a few words), we could replace all the ‘and it was’ phrases with commas. So we would reorder the words as follows:

〰️ The book was interesting, old, long, French.

The only issue with this is that native English speakers would not actually order their adjectives in that way.

✍️ As you may already know, word order in English is quite strict since we use it as a means of making sense of (understanding) a sentence’s intention.

👉 What is more, we do not usually use more than three adjectives at most to describe a noun.

So the average native speaker my say the following instead:

✔️ The French book was interesting, long, and old.

So how do native speakers know which word order to use? Or how do they emphasise one quality (or adjective) over the rest?

The good news is that there is a pattern that you can try to follow:

  1. 1️⃣ The determiner (e.g., ‘the’, ‘an’, ‘one’, etc)
  2. 2️⃣ Opinion*
  3. 3️⃣ Size*
  4. 4️⃣ Shape
  5. 5️⃣ Condition
  6. 6️⃣ Age
  7. 7️⃣ Colour
  8. 8️⃣ Pattern
  9. 9️⃣ Origin
  10. 1️⃣0️⃣ Material
  11. 1️⃣1️⃣ Purpose

The only two that can change places, for the purpose of showing emphasis, are opinion and size. So if I want to emphasise the quality ‘big’ in this sentence, I need to place it in first place even though it refers to size: ‘the big bad boy’. On the other hand, if I want to emphasise ‘bad’ in such a sentence, I would place that word (describing my opinion of him) first: ‘the bad big boy’.

Let’s look at Jane Austen’s most famous and probably well-loved novel, Pride and Prejudice.

Although Austen was sparing with her use of words (careful not to spend much effort or time or money on something), she often used more than one adjective to describe something.

Here are some instances of this:


📙 “There is a fine old saying, which everybody here is of course familiar with—‘Keep your breath to cool your porridge,’—and I shall keep mine to swell my song.”

– Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (1813)

Because Elizabeth Bennet’s (the speaker’s) is describing a saying, ‘fine’ must refer to her 2️⃣ opinion (number 2 on our list above) in this case. And so this adjective comes first in order.

(It would be different if she were referring to a thing – then her use of the word ‘fine’ could mean either a) her opinion or b) the condition of the thing referred to, such as ‘a fine house’, ‘a fine piece of furniture’, etc).

Next in order is ‘old’, an adjective that describes 6️⃣ age (number 6 in our criteria list above).

Thus, ‘a fine, old saying’ is the correct way of saying it (and never ‘an old, fine saying’).


📙 “Tell your sister I am delighted to hear of her improvement on the harp, and pray let her know that I am quite in raptures with her beautiful little design for a table …”

– Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (1813)

If you have read the novel for yourself, you may recognise the speaker as Miss Caroline Bingley (an admirer of Mr Darcy and a woman who sees Elizabeth as her rival). In this quotation she is admiring Mr Darcy’s sister. She hopes that her wordy praise of the young girl will win his approval and attention.

‘Beautiful’ refers to Caroline’s 2️⃣ opinion (number 2 on our adjective order list, above). ‘Little’ refers to the table’s actual 3️⃣ size (number 3 on our list). Also, by placing ‘beautiful’ first, Caroline is emphasising this quality over the table’s ‘littleness’.

So you can see how adjective word order is very specific in English – even two categories of adjectives should not be ordered differently, if we can help it!


📙 Mr. Collins was at leisure to look around him and admire, and he was so much struck with the size and furniture of the apartment, that he declared he might almost have supposed himself in the small summer breakfast parlour at Rosings …

– Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (1813)

Don’t focus here on words you may know or not know. For the purpose of this Lesson, we will only focus on adjective word order.

‘Small’ refers to 3️⃣ size (number 3 on the list).

‘Summer’ and ‘breakfast’ both refer to the parlour’s 1️⃣1️⃣ purpose (a parlour is a kind of room used for visitors). Purpose is the final category in our adjective word order list.


📙 ‘Lady Catherine was a tall, large woman, with strongly-marked features, which might once have been handsome.’

– Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (1813)

When you first read this description, you might think: don’t ‘tall’ and ‘large’ both refer to a person’s size?

That is true! But ‘large’, when used to describe a person, can also be a polite word for saying someone is a bit fat, heavyweight, or overweight. That is what it refers to in this context.

And so Austen’s word order once again follows the rules:

‘Tall’ refers to 3️⃣ size (number 3 on the list).

‘Large’ refers to shape (number 4 on the list).


📙 ‘It was a large, handsome stone building, standing well on rising ground, and backed by a ridge of high woody hills …’

– Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (1813)

Perhaps this is one of the most memorable descriptions in the whole novel! It describes Pemberley House, the magnificent home of Mr Darcy, which heroine Elizabeth Bennet sees for the first time while travelling with her aunt and uncle.

Remember how we mentioned that the word ‘large’, when used to describe a person, can mean ‘overweight’? Well, now that we have established that fact, let’s remember that it can also refer to a great, big size,especially when describing a thing and not a person.

So our word order is as follows:

‘Large’ refers to 3️⃣ size here (number 3 on the list).

‘Handsome’ refers to 5️⃣ condition (number 5 on the list); ‘handsome’ describes the magnificent or beautiful state of the building. ‘Handsome’, when used to describe a thing, means the ‘opposite of old and falling apart’. So clearly Austen was describing the house’s condition here by using the word ‘handsome’.

This quotation has another series of adjectives: ‘high woody hills …’

‘High’ refers to 3️⃣ size (number 3 on the list).

‘Woody’ refers to the materials that make the hills special. Material is the 10th category in our adjective word order list.


📙 ‘It [Pemberley House] was a large, well-proportioned room, handsomely fitted up.’

– Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (1813)

Does the word ‘large’ here refer to a person or a thing? Does it mean ‘fat’ or simply ‘big in size’?

You are right: it refers here to the size (3️⃣) of the room. For this reason, it is placed first in word order (size is number 3 on our list).

‘Well-proportioned’ refers to the room’s layout or 4️⃣ shape. This category is number 4 on the list.


Now it is your turn!

Here is a quotation from the novel. I would like you to figure out which categories these adjectives come from and where they are numbered on the list. (If you find yourself in doubt, I will leave the answers at the very end of this Short Lesson – it will be worthwhile to double-check your answers).

📙 “La!” replied Kitty, “it looks just like that man that used to be with him before. Mr. what’s-his-name. That tall, proud man.”

“Good gracious! Mr. Darcy! — and so it does, I vow. Well, any friend of Mr. Bingley’s will always be welcome here, to be sure; but else I must say that I hate the very sight of him.”

A conversation between Kitty and Mrs Bennet when they see Mr Bingley and Mr Darcy coming to visit them unexpectedly, taken from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813)

🤔 What does the word ‘tall’ refer to? Is it a determiner, or does it refer to Kitty’s opinion, or the size, shape, condition, age, colour, pattern, origin, material, or purpose of Mr Darcy?

🤔 What about the word ‘proud’ – what category do you think it falls under?

🤔 How do we arrange, how do we number these categories on the adjective word list?

Offer your best guess!


I hope you have enjoyed reading this Lesson as much as I have enjoyed preparing it for you.

There is just one last thing to mention before I finish: punctuation.

✍️ Punctuation is so important when we list English adjectives, especially if there are more than three. (I am aware that punctuation patterns are quite different in other languages!)

If there are only two adjectives in a row, we usually place a comma after the first adjective used:

📙 “My good, kind brother!”

Mrs Bennet, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813)

We do this whenever we want to emphasise each adjective in a special way. When we speak, you can usually hear the small pause between the emphasised words. For this reason, we should place a comma in the written version of the same.

However, we can also leave the comma out entirely if all the words are only one syllable each and we don’t need to stress any word in particular: ✏️ ‘I bought a good hot cappuccino today.’

Now if there are three adjectives or more, you may need to use what we call an Oxford or serial comma. This simply means placing a comma after every adjective except the last one.

✏️ ‘The lesson was interesting, challenging, and new.’

✏️ ‘Such a good, kind, pleasant sort of person!’

I recommend you check 👉 my Short Lesson on the Oxford comma. It is essential to know about Oxford commas if you have to write anything in English. Commas are everywhere, so please learn how to use them correctly! 🧐

And lastly, whenever there is no clear order (for example, when both adjectives belong to the same category), you should generally place the shorter adjective before the longer one. For example, ‘He is a good, generous person’ rather than ‘generous, good person’. Both words ‘good’ and ‘generous’ describe the speaker’s evaluation or opinion – the only thing that differentiates them here is how many syllables they have, so the shorter word is placed first in order.

Well done on reaching the end of this Lesson! 👏

As you can see, it takes practice to know where and how to write serial adjectives together.

Here are the answers to the question I asked you above (Example #7):

🗝️ ‘Tall’ refers to 3️⃣ size (number 3 on the list), while ‘proud’ refers to how Mr Darcy presents himself, his external condition (number 5 on the list). ‘Proud’ could of course refer to how Kitty perceives him, her 2️⃣ opinion of him, which would be number 2 on the list. However, since opinion and size are interchangeable categories (their positions in the word order can be switched around), Austen chose to go by word length, with ‘tall’ being a shorter word and so placed before ‘proud’ in the sentence. 🗝️

There you have it! Good luck with arranging your own adjectives now.

by J. E. Gibbons

English language tutor and researcher at 'Learn English Through Literature' (2024)