Wilcox Editing

Comma Between Adjectives?

You may have heard the prescription that two adjectives falling before a noun should be separated by a comma. In fact, the rules of English syntax are far more complex than this in the case of prenominal modifiers. Knowing the difference between coordinate and cumulative adjectives is an important piece of the puzzle. According to the textbook Understanding English Grammar, a coordinate modifier “describes the noun independently,” whereas a cumulative modifier “describes the combination of the next modifier plus the noun it modifies” (Kolln and Funk 363).

The basic rule (outlined in The Chicago Manual of StyleUnderstanding English Grammar, and The Copyeditor’s Handbook) is that coordinate adjectives take a comma between them:

The gorgeous, friendly spy

whereas cumulative adjectives do not:

The old red baseball cap

Here are two ways to test if a modifier is coordinate: 1) Does placing and between the adjectives sound natural? If so, this is evidence they are coordinate. 2) Does the order of the adjectives seem to matter? If you can switch the order of the modifiers, this is further evidence they are coordinate.

Applying these tests to the above subjects, we get the following ^marked or unmarked sentences. (A ^marked sentence is one that sounds odd or awkward to the ears of a native speaker):
1) The gorgeous and friendly spy said hello.
2) The friendly, gorgeous spy said hello.

^1) The old and red baseball cap sat on my bookshelf.
^2) The red old baseball cap was my favorite hat.

The tests yield fairly clear results in this case, but we are not always so lucky. Factors such as rhythm and idiom can complicate judgments based on native intuition. In other words, it sometimes takes a trained ear to hear when a sentence is off. When these basic tests prove inconclusive, a better understanding of why the tests work will come in handy. For example, did you know that the order of cumulative adjectives is generally fixed? Kolln and Funk reveal that cumulative modifiers usually follow this order, based on their meaning:

size, shape, condition or age, color, origin or material

In the case of the old red baseball cap, the order of the adjectives follows this rule: old [age] red [color]. This deeply embedded rule of native syntax helps explain why the second test works. I have found that it is also a great way to collect further evidence when the basic tests prove inconclusive. If the adjective describes size, shape, condition, age, color, origin, or material, chances are it is a cumulative modifier.

Stay tuned for more on the status of baseball in the noun phrase baseball cap.

Comma Between Adjectives? Part II
Comma Between Adjectives? Part III


If you want an editor with enormous professional integrity who isn’t afraid to tell you the truth about your work, but knows all about fragile egos and therefore murders your babies with courteous brutality; who is suitably persnickety without being pedantic; who always respects the writer’s voice and is just as committed to your project as you are: give Erin Wilcox a try. You will not be disappointed.”

Dominic Lagan,
The Coming Storm

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