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The mystery grammar mistake that Microsoft Word doesn’t always fix

There’s a mystery English grammar rule that any native speaker knows but probably can’t explain.  It’s the order of adjectives before a noun (e.g why “Brown Big Cat” is wrong). The Microsoft Word grammar checks for this rule but doesn’t always ‘see’ or fix it.

Adjective order is a mystery to most native English speakers, we just ‘know’ what’s right without understanding the underlying rule. We’re probably never taught the rule directly, we just absorb it along with many other language quirks.  If someone learning English asks why “Grey Old Seal” is wrong while “Old Grey Seal” is OK, most native English speakers are stumped.

We’ve tested Microsoft Word to see how it copes with adjective order in its Grammar checks.

In short: Word’s English Grammar checks can’t cope with longer lists of adjectives. Only some word pairs are detected and even then, not consistently.

Adjective Order

Here’s just two proper order of adjectives that we found in our research (there’s sure to be others)

Sources: one list is commonly quoted on the Internet. The longer list from the Cambridge Dictionary.

They are basically the same with opinions or judgements before hard facts. But there’s also differences like Shape and Age are swapped.

What’s consistent is Origin, material come later with the objects purpose always last before the noun. To put them in sentences:

A lovely little old rectangular green French silver general-purpose carving knife.


A lovely little thick rectangular old green French silver general-purpose carving knife.

Word’s grammar checks for adjective order

Microsoft Word’s English language grammar system knows about adjective order. For example, it knows that size is always before color.

Word can’t cope with more adjectives

As you can see above, there’s a limit to Microsoft’s grammar smarts. When you add more words, the grammar tester gets confused and misses even obvious errors. It might detect a problem (e.g “brown old”) or might not (the same word combination on the last line).

Here’s a much longer sentence using all the adjective types.  First (in bold) is the correct sentence then variations with different, incorrect word orders. None are flagged by Word as incorrect.

But once the sentence shortens to a few words, the Grammar systems kicks in.

Two different grammar messages

The Grammar system in Microsoft Word can show two different messages for the same adjective error.

You might see

“A different adjective order might sound more natural here”


“Double-check whether these words are in the right order”

English dialect differences

All the above examples use the English (United States) language setting.

The same adjective / word order rules should apply to all English language dialects but they do NOT always work.

Our “The big brown old cat.” example produced a dotted line warning for United Kingdom and Australia language settings as well as US English.

But “A little lovely old knife.” only shows a warning for US English.

In other words, “Your milage may vary”, depending on the language and dialect choice.

No replacement for humans

As with many language issues, the computer can only help so much. It’s still up to us humans to check for mistakes. 

Word’s Grammar checks are impressive because they can handle many of the strange things about the English language. But the software isn’t perfect and certainly isn’t the final judge on what’s right or wrong in any language.

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