When to Use Commas between Adjectives Or How to Recognize “Coordinate” Adjectives

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  • Nancy Tuten

    3 June 2015

    When to Use Commas between Adjectives Or How to Recognize “Coordinate” Adjectives

    Which sentences use commas appropriately between adjectives when more than one modify the same noun?

    1. We were prepared for a long, tedious, planning session.
    2. Allen owns several blue, wool sweaters.
    3. In order to get home, we must travel over several narrow, winding, treacherous roads.

    Only the last sentence is punctuated correctly.

    The rulebooks tell us to put commas between coordinate adjectives, but it is not always easy to tell when adjectives are coordinate. Apply two simple tests to be sure:

    First, place the word and between the two adjectives. Second, reverse them. If, in both instances, the resulting phrase still sounds appropriate, we are most likely dealing with coordinate adjectives and should use a comma between them.

    Let’s try those two tests on sentence 1: We could say “a long and tedious planning session” or “a tedious, long planning session.” Thus, we need the comma between the words long and tedious. However, we could not say “a tedious and planning session,” nor could we say “a planning, tedious session.” Thus, we should not use a comma between the words tedious and planning.

    In sentence 2, we do not need a comma between the words blue and wool because the two adjectives are not coordinate. It would sound illogical to say “blue and wool sweaters” or “wool blue sweaters.”

    The adjectives in sentence three—narrow, winding, and treacherous—are coordinate with one another, so the commas are appropriate. The word and would sound fine between those words (“the narrow and winding roads” or “the winding and treacherous roads”), and we could easily rearrange the three modifiers in any order.

    Remember, of course, that we never use a comma in front of the noun or pronoun being modified or between adverbs and the adjectives they modify.

    TEST YOURSELF: Which sentences need commas between coordinate adjectives?
    1. In the attic we found old thin paper cutouts we used to play with when we were children.
    2. The poster depicted a brown-haired blue-eyed child wearing a red denim shirt.
    3. For breakfast we ate two oversized blueberry muffins.
    4. We bought two dozen boxes of mouth-watering peanut butter Girl Scout cookies.
    ANSWERS
    1. In the attic we found old, thin paper cutouts we used to play with when we were children.
    2. The poster depicted a brown-haired, blue-eyed child wearing a red denim shirt.
    3. For breakfast we ate two oversized blueberry muffins. [no commas]
    4. We bought two dozen boxes of mouth-watering peanut butter Girl Scout cookies. [no commas]

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