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Comma Between Adjectives? Part II: If It Walks Like a Duck But Has No Feathers . . .

Now that you know the difference between cumulative and coordinate adjectives, you might wonder, which kind of adjective is the word baseball in baseball cap? The word baseball describes the main noun cap, so would you ever place a comma between another modifer and baseball?

This one turns out to be a trick question because the word baseball cap appears in the dictionary (Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Eleventh), meaning that it has entered the lexicon as a compound noun. You would not ever place a comma between another modifier and baseball because the nouns each act as a particle of the compound head noun.

A similar sequence that is not a compound noun will illustrate a more interesting phenomenon. In the example lead paint, the word lead describes the main noun paint, so would you ever place a comma between another modifier and lead? What kind of adjective is the word lead? 

In fact, lead is neither a coordinate nor a cumulative adjective. It is not an adjective at all. Rather, it is a modifying noun phrase, or mod NP. Although this word acts like an adjective, modifying the head noun, it is still a noun in form. Do not place a comma between an adjective and a mod NP, except for special effect.

The following examples show ^marked and unmarked constructions illustrating the rule:

^1) Dobby played with red, lead paint.
^2) Dobby chose an ugly, smelly, lead paint.

1) Dobby played with red lead paint.
2) Dobby chose an ugly, smelly lead paint to play with.

If you’re ever unsure about the form class of a prenominal (before-the-noun) modifier, you can apply the following tests:

Noun Test
_______ can be a pain in the neck.

Adjective Test
They are very _______.

The sentence will sound unmarked if it is the proper form class for either test.

1) Lead can be a pain in the neck.
^2) They are very lead.

If a word modifying a head noun fails the adjective test and passes the noun test, as does lead in the sequence lead paint, it is a modifying noun phrase—a noun functioning like an adjective. Do not place a comma before or after it. Place the mod NP directly before the noun it modifies, with any adjectives falling before the mod NP (Understanding English Grammar, Kolln and Funk 139).

Links:
Comma Between Adjectives? Part III
Comma Between Adjectives? Part I

Kudos

Erin’s grasp of sci-fi literature’s scope and range was surprising. I felt confident in going back to ask for additional help and was most satisfied in her responses to unusual requests.”

Dana Barish,
author,
Time Unwound