comma btw adjective & attributive noun: superhuman, vampire strength

Discussion in 'English Only' started by Rabelaisian, Feb 4, 2013.

  1. Rabelaisian Senior Member

    Toronto, Canada
    English - Canadian
    Source: me

    He pounded against it with all his superhuman, vampire strength, so hard that the echo reverberated off the walls.

    Is it wrong to put that comma after "superhuman" to emphasize "vampire" being used adjectivally in describing the strength, or should "vampire strength" be made a head noun?

    Thanks.
     
  2. JustKate

    JustKate Moderate Mod

    It's certainly not wrong. While there are a few rules about comma use in adjective strings, mostly what we have are guidelines, and those guidelines tell me that both "superhuman vampire strength" and "superhuman, vampire strength" are possible. I'd probably use the former myself, but the latter is OK too.
     
  3. Rabelaisian Senior Member

    Toronto, Canada
    English - Canadian
    Oh, I see. That's good, I guess. I like diverse options. I remember the adjective comma rule about putting a comma between two describing words of the same ilk, and in this case both "superhuman" and "vampire" have to do with being beyond merely human.

    Thanks.
     
  4. R1chard Senior Member

    UK
    British English
    Your sentence says to me that that his vampire strength was superhuman. Without the comma it would tell me that he had the strength of a superhuman vampire.

    Can an echo reverberate?
     
  5. JustKate

    JustKate Moderate Mod

    Commas are generally used to separate adjectives of equal rank. It doesn't matter if they are the same "ilk" or not, or that both have to do with being more than human. It's how they relate to the noun, in this case strength. If they all equally modify the noun, they are separated by commas. If they don't, they might not be.

    One way to judge this is to ask yourself if the comma could be replaced with and without changing the meaning: superhuman and vampire strength. If it can, a comma might be appropriate. But in cases where the adjective just before the noun (and remember that both superhuman and vampire are acting as adjectives here, not nouns) outranks the others because it's an integral element of the noun phrase (as "fur" is in "luxurious fur coat"), then you shouldn't use a comma. So if you consider vampire strength to be a noun phrase, which is how it seems to me, you shouldn't put a comma between superhuman and vampire.

    But there are other ways to look at this, so don't think I'm giving you a "rule" here. ;)

    (Cross-posted with R1chard)
     
  6. lucas-sp Senior Member

    English - Californian
    I would use no comma here. It's not that his strength is both superhuman strength and vampire strength. It's that his vampire strength is superhuman​.
     
  7. Rabelaisian Senior Member

    Toronto, Canada
    English - Canadian
    I'm having trouble understanding this subtle difference, but I can say that, to me, without the comma it would seem that his vampire strength was superhuman, since "vampire strength" would become the head noun. Anyway, in both understandings, the strength is superhuman, so that's fine.

    Of course; it's sound. Singing can reverberate through a hall, for example.
     
  8. Rabelaisian Senior Member

    Toronto, Canada
    English - Canadian
    What do you mean equally modify the noun? For example, I would not put a comma between "big" and "round" in "She had big round eyes," since that is a conventional order, and the types of adjectives belong to different categories, yet they both modify the noun "eyes" equally, making them of the same rank.
     
  9. lucas-sp Senior Member

    English - Californian
    I would, unless I wanted to emphasize that this was spoken breathlessly in a dialogue. "She had big, round eyes" is correct: her eyes are both big and round. (Not: her round eyes were big = "her big round eyes.") This is what Kate means by "equal modification" - her eyes are big and round, hence the comma.
     
  10. Rabelaisian Senior Member

    Toronto, Canada
    English - Canadian
    I don't think not putting a comma there makes it breathless anymore than saying "superhuman vampire strength" is breathless with no comma. Not all adjectives need commas between them; we all know this. If there is a conventional order to them, for example, "long red velvet curtains," commas become superfluous.

    And, yes, her round eyes were big is the meaning with the comma there or not.
     
  11. lucas-sp Senior Member

    English - Californian
    The bolded part is not a rule. Sorry.

    Obviously in phrases like "her big, round eyes" and "her big round eyes" her eyes will end up being modified by both adjectives. My point was that:

    her big round eyes = She had round eyes. As far as round eyes go, hers were big. ("Big" modifies "round eyes")
    her big, round eyes = She had eyes. These eyes were both big and round. ("Big" and "round" both modify "eyes")
     
  12. Rabelaisian Senior Member

    Toronto, Canada
    English - Canadian
    I know it's not a rule; it can't be a rule because it has to do with what isn't necessary, not with what isn't allowed, and I never said using commas that way isn't allowed. I'm saying they're no longer needed.

    I actually see modification in "round" with or without the comma. In both cases, "round" is still an adjective. In fact, the "and" in "big and round eyes" sounds unnatural to me. Let me ask you this: Would you say that the word "long" modifies "red velvet curtains" instead of "curtains" because there is no comma after it in "long red velvet curtains"? If so, is "red" no longer a modifier anymore?
     
  13. JustKate

    JustKate Moderate Mod

    Exactly. What is being talked about here: strength or vampire strength? It's not my sentence, but I think it's vampire strength and I therefore wouldn't separate that noun phrase from its one and only adjective, which is superhuman. Therefore, the two modifiers aren't equal because vampire is part of the noun phrase vampire strength, and that means it outranks superhuman.

    I don't want to overemphasize these things. There are cases in which this relationship is pretty clear: fur coat, camera bag and farm house are usually a noun phrases, so modifiers wouldn't be separated from them with a comma. Therefore you'd write "luxurious fur coat," "dusty camera bag" and "white farm house," all without commas. But there are lots of times when the question of whether something is or is not a noun phrase is purely a judgement call, and vampire strength is one of those times.

    And if you think about this stuff too much, you just might go crazy. Sometimes you have to go by instinct. My instinct says that vampire strength is a noun phrase. What does yours say, Rabelaisian?
     
    Last edited: Feb 4, 2013
  14. Rabelaisian Senior Member

    Toronto, Canada
    English - Canadian
    Mine says "vampire strength" is definitely the noun phrase, so I took out the comma. It's weird how I never realized it before today, though.
     
  15. lucas-sp Senior Member

    English - Californian
    They are, in fact, still needed.

    You're getting yourself confused. Obviously in a series of adjectives modifying a noun the noun will get modified by all the adjectives. So "red" will remain a modifier (although to my eye it modifies "velvet" and not "curtains"; the curtains are made out of "red velvet").

    Kate brings up a great point: look at these more extreme examples. "He picked up his dusty camera bag" (and not "his dusty, camera bag"): it's not that his bag is both dusty and for cameras. It's that his camera bag is dusty.

    I think that his vampire strength is superhuman​. No comma.
     
  16. Forero Senior Member

    Houston, Texas, USA
    USA English
    I would interpret "his superhuman, vampire strength" to mean that his strength was superhuman, specifically like a vampire's. In other words with the two modifiers in a sort of apposition.
     
  17. Rabelaisian Senior Member

    Toronto, Canada
    English - Canadian
    No, it becomes stylistic. I don't need to put a comma between "big" and "glass" in "big glass window," even though both are adjectives because it's a conventional order: size and then material. "Long red velvet curtains" has a conventional order: Length, colour and material.

    I agree on all points here. Camera is a noun and so is vampire.
     
  18. JustKate

    JustKate Moderate Mod

    I would be interested to see if others have additional information, but I don't think the fact that camera and vampire are nouns that are acting as adjectives/modifiers matters when it comes to decisions about commas. Red velvet, for example, is usually a noun phrase, as is cellular phone, and yet both red and cellular are adjectives. What makes something a noun phrase isn't that all of the words in it are usually nouns; it's a noun phrase because you have a modifier+noun combination that is treated as a unit: styrofoam cup, ice (originally iced) tea, soft drink, lake shore, pink slip, shag carpet, speed boat. Whenever you use these, and any other noun phrases, you don't put a comma between the noun phrase and the last word to modify it, e.g., white styrofoam cup, raspberry ice tea, orange shag carpet, etc. In English, any noun (and verb, for that matter) can act as a modifier at times, so decisions on when to use commas and other sentence construction question are based not on what a word is usually classified as but what it's acting as in the sentence in question.
     
    Last edited: Feb 4, 2013
  19. lucas-sp Senior Member

    English - Californian
    I completely agree - it makes no difference whether the modifiers "are" adjectives, nouns, or whatever. The decision to use commas or not is based entirely on the semantics of the situation. So: "a puce shag carpet" and "a very 1970's shag carpet."
     
  20. Rabelaisian Senior Member

    Toronto, Canada
    English - Canadian
    Can you please give me an example of when you WOULD put a comma between an adjective and a descriptive noun?
     
  21. lucas-sp Senior Member

    English - Californian
    Well, I would say:

    his dusty, tattered camera bag = his camera bag was dusty and tattered
    the small, family-owned gun store = the gun store was small and family-owned
    the long, captivating antique red velvet curtains = the curtains were made out of antique red velvet; they were long and captivating
    the big game hunter = the person who hunted big game
    the big, game hunter = the hunter who was both large and ready to do whatever
     
  22. Rabelaisian Senior Member

    Toronto, Canada
    English - Canadian
    The only remote example there of a comma between an adjective and a noun is the last one, and in that last one, "game" is being used as an adjective, not a descriptive noun, so it does not count for what I was requesting. "Dusty" and "tattered" are both adjectives. "Small" and "family-owned" are adjectives, the latter being a compound adjective. So on and so forth.
     
  23. JustKate

    JustKate Moderate Mod

    I think...and I could be wrong...that when a noun is modified by something that is usually a noun it is always a noun phrase. I, at least, can't think of any exceptions right now: coffee cup, desk drawer, note pad, bookkeeper (which has morphed into a single word), babysitter (ditto), ocean liner, space ship, table saw, bumper sticker. But the point I was trying to make, and I think this was Lucas' point as well, is that a noun phrase can consist of an adjective+noun, too. It's not what material that it's constructed from that makes something a noun phrase, it's how it acts in the sentence and in the readers' minds.
     
  24. lucas-sp Senior Member

    English - Californian
    Ah, okay. So you want something like:

    her banal, small-town good looks = her good looks that were both banal and provincial
     
  25. Rabelaisian Senior Member

    Toronto, Canada
    English - Canadian
    No, no. "Banal" is an adjective" and "small-town" is a compound adjective. Of course a comma goes there. It's like "small, family-owned."
     
  26. lucas-sp Senior Member

    English - Californian
    I completely agree, again. And, obviously, a noun phrase can be noun+adjective (Cuervo Gold) or noun+noun (news media) or whatever the heck it wants to be.

    The question here is about the semantic divisions of the multiply-described object or objects - not about the "original" parts of speech of the modifiers.
     
  27. lucas-sp Senior Member

    English - Californian
    Is it? I'm glad you're so sure!

    The inconceivably heavy, solid lead candelabra...
    Her highly flammable, pure polyester cardigan...
    Some good-for-nothing, two-bit gangster...
     
  28. JustKate

    JustKate Moderate Mod

    Rabelaisian, if you want to know if you are safe in assuming that a noun-modifying-a-noun combination is always a noun phrase, I think you can. As I mentioned above, I at least can't think of an exception. (And if somebody else can, I'd be very interested to see it.) But what isn't safe is assuming that no other combination can be considered a noun phrase, because sometimes they can as well. As Lucas points out, Cuervo Gold is a noun phrase, and it's a noun+adjective. So is attorney general. And there are lots of adjective+noun noun phrases as well. It would be just as incorrect to put a comma in, for example, outdated cellular phone as it is to put one in dusty camera bag.

    It isn't always easy to say "That comma is wrong!" but I'd have no hesitation is saying one between outdated and cellular or between dusty and camera would be flat-out wrong.

    (Cross-posted with Lucas)
     
    Last edited: Feb 4, 2013
  29. Forero Senior Member

    Houston, Texas, USA
    USA English
    All his ... strength is obviously a noun phrase, and everything between his and strength is modifiers. In particular, because of its position, vampire must describe strength, with or without a comma or commas.

    And with or without the comma, superhuman, vampire strength is capable of multiple interpretations. But still the comma can help to distinguish some of these interpretations from others.

    Note that both superhuman and vampire can be used as nouns or as modifiers. One question to ask before deciding whether the comma belongs is: Does the order matter (superhuman vampire strength, vampire superhuman strength)?

    Another question is: Is his strength a superhuman subset of vampire strength, or a vampire subset of superhuman strength, or does one imply the other?
     

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