The comma is perhaps the trickiest mark of punctuation to teach and to learn, largely because we seem to have multiple exceptions for every rule.
Elsewhere on this site we have written about the Oxford (serial) comma, a usage issue hotly debated in both linguistic and legal circles. We have also addressed the use of a comma before and when that conjunction (among others) joins independent clauses.
Another comma question that arises frequently is whether we need a comma between two (or more) adjectives modifying the same noun.
Let’s See What You Already Know
Which sentences use commas appropriately between adjectives?
- We were prepared for a long, tedious, planning session.
- Allen owns several blue, wool sweaters.
- In order to get home, we must travel two narrow, winding, treacherous roads.
Only the last sentence is punctuated correctly.
What Are Coordinate Adjectives?
The rulebooks tell us to put commas between coordinate adjectives—that is, adjectives that are equal in meaning—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.
Test the Method
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.
Coordinate vs. Cumulative Adjectives
Native English speakers know intuitively that certain types of adjectives need to appear in a particular order. These adjectives are not coordinate but cumulative. While we sometimes make exceptions (surprise!), the order is typically quantity, opinion, size, age, color, shape, origin, material, and purpose.
Notice the order of the adjectives in the following sentence: “Henry baked two large chocolate birthday cakes.” Those of us who have heard and spoken English all our lives (or at least for a long time) know intuitively not to write or say “. . . birthday chocolate large two cakes,” though we would be hard-pressed to explain why not.
The order of cumulative adjectives is something we have internalized; it is part of the subconscious grammar that native speakers learn at a very early age but that second (and other) language learners can find frustrating and arbitrary. (Voice of America has an excellent article on cumulative adjectives here.)
It stands to reason that if the adjectives need to be in a certain order, then typically they cannot be flipped; likewise, the word and would sound inappropriate between them.
One Final Point
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?
- In the attic we found old thin paper cutouts we used to play with when we were children.
- The poster depicted a brown-haired blue-eyed child wearing a red denim shirt.
- For breakfast we ate two oversized blueberry muffins.
- We bought two dozen boxes of mouth-watering peanut butter Girl Scout cookies.
- In the attic we found old, thin paper cutouts we used to play with when we were children. [Note: if the cutouts were made from thin paper, we could employ a hyphen for greater clarity and would need no comma: “old thin-paper cutouts.” Note also the use of hyphens in sentences two and four. For more on the use of the hyphen, see our article on hyphenated adjectives.]
- The poster depicted a brown-haired, blue-eyed child wearing a red denim shirt.
- For breakfast we ate two oversized blueberry muffins. [no commas]
- We bought two dozen boxes of mouth-watering peanut butter Girl Scout cookies. [no commas]
©2001 Get It Write. Revised 2021