A cognitive-functional approach to the order of adjectives in the English noun phrase

Kristin Davidse, Tine Breban

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In this article we identify and motivate the main word order patterns of adjectives in the English NP. Theoretically, we situate ourselves within the tradition of semiotically-based, cognitive-functional construction grammars as developed by such linguists as Halliday, Langacker and McGregor. In this tradition, the lexicogrammar is assumed to exist to symbolize semantic functions. We argue that the various semantic functions of adjectives in the English NP are coded by different modification relations, which differ in terms of where and how they fit into the structural assembly of the whole NP. We hold that function motivates structure, and that order is an epiphenomenon of structure. Therefore, we first set out our model of the functions that can be fulfilled by adjectives in the English NP. This model is innovative in a number of ways. Theoretically, it extends the distinction between representational and interpersonal modifiers. Descriptively, we elucidate the traditionally recognized representational functions of classifier and epithet as well as the interpersonal functions of noun-intensifier and secondary determiner. To this set, we add the hitherto barely recognized interpersonal functions of focus marker and metadesignative. We also systematically investigate the possibility for coordination and subordination between adjectives fulfilling the same function. In a second step, we then correlate this functional-structural model with the general ordering tendencies of the functions realized by adjectives. We specify the general left-to-right ordering of the six functions, pointing out possible and impossible orders of the functions relative to each other. We interpret the distinction between representational and interpersonal modifiers with regard to their different ordering potential. Finally, we look at the main ordering options available for multiple adjectives realizing the same function.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)327-371
Number of pages45
Issue number2
Early online date2 Mar 2019
Publication statusPublished - 2019


  • cognitive-functional approach
  • functions and order of adjectives
  • interpersonal vs. representational modification


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