Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Why We Sometimes Need Commas Between Adjectives, And Sometimes Not

Why We Sometimes Need Commas Between Adjectives, And Sometimes Not

Bradford’s extensive, thorough report
The large gray dialog box
The ugly, unnecessary graphic
The italic, underlined word
The heavy black bounding box

A good friend of mine who has been a writer for years recently took a job in which she has to copyedit. One day she IM’ed me: “What is up with the commas between adjectives? My boss seems to always put them in—but I don’t think they are needed. Are there rules for this?”

Ahhh, the kind of question that warms a long-time copyeditor and grammar teacher’s heart. Yes, my dear, there are rules for this. But most native speakers of English have never heard of them. We simply rely on our “ear.”

The rules start with the official order of adjectives. The large blue dinosaur just sounds more familiar, more correct, than the blue large dinosaur. We always put size before color when describing something: the gigantic green frog, the large black briefcase.

We can put together long strings of adjectives without any punctuation, as long as we follow the official order of adjectives: the valuable old green Mercedes sedan.

The order is first a, the, or a possessive such as my or Tom’s. Then we put evaluation or opinion, followed by the physical description—size, shape, age, color, texture—followed by where it came from, the material it is made of, and finally its purpose or main use. Oh, and we might have one last item before the noun: another noun that helps identify it.

Thus I can describe Brian’s comfortable big old brown soft Italian leather driving jacket sleeve without using any commas, although that is admittedly going a little over the top.

When do we have to use commas? When we use the adjectives out of order, as in the old, uncomfortable sofa (age before evaluation) as opposed to the uncomfortable old sofa; and when we use two adjectives that are in the same category or that are not part of the official categories: her comfortable, affordable alternative (two evaluations).

Besides order, there is another easy test for whether you need a comma. Can you read it with the word and between the adjectives? If so, you need a comma. Her comfortable and affordable alternative? Yes. My dear and old Aunt Sally? I don’t think so. No comma.

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