For the moment I am just considering adjectives and adverbs as the same sort of thing, basically modifiers for the noun or verb. I will probably only focus on nouns here for simplicity.

Some examples of noun modifiers are:

(1) The big red car.

(2) The big red green car.

(3) The reasonably sized rainbow colored sports car.

(4) The reasonably sized rainbow colored extremely high performance car.

(5) The somewhat reasonably sized rainbow slash what seems like arbitrarily colored extremely high performance on the edge futuristic super car.

I didn't add commas because in spoken speech we don't have punctuation other than micro pauses potentially in how we say it. Maybe that is enough to transfer some sort of information about how the adjectives are "grouped/nested".

I am wondering how we mentally are able to parse sentences like these. At some point, we stop nesting and chaining the adjectives, and instead separate it out into separate chunks/clauses. Something like:

The somewhat reasonably sized car, the one with that rainbow slash what seems like arbitrary coloring; the one with extremely high performance, which is on the edge; what I would say is futuristic, a super car.

For example, you see noun phrases (I guess they're called) that mostly don't have any commas. You see stuff like:

(6) Super mega store

(7) All you can eat buffet

(8) Yellow spotted sea turtle

You don't see this in titles:

(9) Yellow spotted oddly shaped rough sea turtle

...One that lists multiple separate adjective chunks:

  • yellow spotted
  • oddly shaped
  • rough

At some point it's too hard to tell what is nested into what:

(10) Oddly shaped dark yellow spotted rough long living sea turtle

  • Not sure if the turtle is "long" or "long living".
  • Not sure if it is "dark" or a "dark yellow".

So it seems there is a limit to how complex we can so-called "nest" or "embed" these adjectives.

What I would like to understand is what the syntactic structure is for these sorts of thing. If adjectives take other adjectives as arguments, or if it is considered an adjective chain. That is, if it is a structure such as this:

Oddly(shaped), dark, yellow(spotted), rough, long(living), sea(turtle).

And what it means when you have these nested adjectives. That is, what the components are called in this:


If there is a limit to how much we can nest and chain adjectives without causing confusion (or without making titles ugly), then I don't see why we don't do it more like Spanish, and have:

turtle <of the> sea <which is> shaped <as> odd <which is> dark <which is> spotted <with> yellow ...

This would give more freedom and ability to nest stuff. But perhaps it would make it even more confusing, I don't know.

The questions are these:

  1. What the terminology is for the components in something like Seriously(oddly(shaped)), which seems like a nested set of adjectives. Likewise, what the components are in something like Yellow spotted oddly shaped rough sea turtle, which is a chain of nested sets of adjectives.
  2. Why English doesn't have this more Spanish like form (the one I just listed).

1 Answer 1


In English, we hyphenate adjectives that modify adjectives (compound adjectives) when they come before the noun.

"An oddly-shaped dark-yellow-spotted long-lived rough sea turtle" (or however you need to group them) -- each hyphen represents a '(' in your nesting scheme, and each space closes the open nestings.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.