Wilcox Editing

Comma Between Adjectives? Part III: Approaching the Grey

If you’ve read parts I and II of my Comma Between Adjectives? series, you already have a lot to think about when making your decision about comma usage: are the adjectives coordinate or cumulative? Are they in fact adjectives, or are they modifying nouns? This post will give you one more way to think about the problem. It will also show that, even armed with all the analytical tools from parts I through III, you may encounter cases that defy a tidy understanding.

The vocal pause indicated by a comma creates a break between thoughts that might otherwise run together. Therefore, if adjectives are categorically different from one another, a comma is not necessary. If two adjectives fall in similar semantic categories, a comma is more likely to be called for.Kolln and Funk’s Understanding English Grammar (7th ed.) offers the example of the “funny brown monkey” (139) to illustrate this principle. We will consider the parallel case of the lazy green alligator. The adjectives “lazy” and “green” fall into distinct semantic categories. “Lazy” is a subjective judgment, an abstract quality that might easily change depending on the speaker’s point of view. “Green” is a concrete, permanent quality that would not easily change based on the speaker’s perspective. Because these two adjectives fall into different semantic categories, placing a comma between them results in a marked construction:

1) Kermit greeted the lazy green alligator.
^2) Kermit greeted the lazy, green alligator.

One can back up this judgment by employing the conjunction test: ^Kermit greeted the lazy and green alligator sounds marked.

You might notice that the types of adjectives we find to be cumulative also happen to be concrete and permanent—that is, the adjectives describing size, shape, condition or age, color, origin or material. Coordinate adjectives tend to be subjective, changeable, and abstract. Semantic categories seem to be linked to the designation of coordinate or cumulative adjectives. When the tests that help one determine if a modifier is coordinate or cumulative (can you insert “and” between the adjectives? is their order interchangeable?) yield fuzzy results, knowing that a comma is needed between adjectives of the same category (objective or subjective) might allow you to take a step back and give your test results some further context.

At this point, however, I want to emphasize the fluidity of language and the validity of judgments based solely on your ear if you are a native English speaker. Linguists and grammarians strive to describe tendencies in the speech patterns of native speakers, not to prescribe, judge, and generally tell a confident speaker that she is doing it all wrong. As an editor, I walk this line every day. If I am presented with a clear-cut case of a marked construction resulting from comma being placed between cumulative adjectives, I will suggest removing the comma. However, not all cases are so clear cut.

For example, in both the cases of the funny brown monkey and the lazy green alligator, the chosen cumulative adjectives fall under the type color. Recall from part I of this series that cumulative adjectives naturally fall in a certain order before the head noun, and that order is: size, shape, condition or age, color, origin or material. Color falls quite close to the head noun, implying a tight relationship between this type of adjective and the noun. What if we were to choose for our test a different type of cumulative adjective, one that tends to fall farther away from the head noun, such as round, which describes shape?

What sounds marked?:
1) Kermit greeted the lazy round alligator.
2) Kermit greeted the lazy, round alligator.
3) Kermit greeted the round lazy alligator.
4) Kermit greeted the round, lazy alligator.

To my ear, 3 sounds marked without the comma, and 1 is slightly preferable to 2 when one applies the conjunction test (^ … lazy and round alligator). But how interesting that we could switch the received order of: coordinate adj. + cumulative adj. + noun with the addition of a comma when the cumulative adj. is of the type shape. We can’t get away with this kind of switch without producing a marked construction when the cumulative adj. is of the type color.

^1) Kermit greeted the green lazy alligator.
^2) Kermit greeted the green, lazy alligator.

I can’t read either of these sentences without thinking how preferable it would be to switch the order of the adjectives, a judgment that conforms to Kolln and Funk’s statement, “Any coordinate modifiers will precede the cumulative modifiers in the string” (363). But when the cumulative adjective is of the type shape? Honestly, both variations sound fine to me as long as the “round, lazy” version contains a comma. (Applying the conjunction test, “Kermit greeted the round and lazy alligator” also strikes me as relatively unmarked.)

This goes to show that grey areas persist in our understanding of language, no matter how much education one enjoys or how varied is one’s grammatical toolbox. It seems likely that because language is inherently fluid, these grey areas persist in the language itself, not just our understanding of it. This series on when to place a comma between adjectives conveys what I do know about the subject. Because these tools have helped me sort out an often confusing (and, I think, gradually shifting) aspect of English usage, I expect they will be useful to others. Having reached the limits of my understanding, I will conclude the series with the caveat that writers should trust their ear and develop their own style with these rules in mind, and editors should always remember the wise aphorism: when in doubt, don’t change it; let the author’s judgment stand.

Comma Between Adjectives? Part I
Comma Between Adjectives? Part II

camillemulan (not verified) said:

You are so awesome!


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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