comma with adjective: long, dark, glossy hair - 'dark' modifies what?

roger mellie

New Member
English, UK
Hi guys, first of all I am a native English speaker trying to improve my punctuation and grammar. I hope there are other here like me.

I have bought a Penguin "Guide to Punctuation" book and am trying to understand the use of listing commas in relation to modifiers. There are two examples in my book: One is: "Her long, dark, glossy hair fascinated me".

The other example, which they use to demonstrate where a listing comma should not be used is: "She gave me an antique ivory box." They use this example to demonstrate that it would be incorrect to write: "She gave me an antique, ivory box", which is said to be incorrect as Antique and Ivory are not modifying the same thing. "Ivory" is modifying box and "antique" is modifying ivory box.

Now my issue with the above is why in the first example "dark" is not modifying "glossy hair" as opposed to just modifying "hair". It seems like something that is difficult to spot?

Can anyone explain it differently? Sorry for the long post, but I can't really get my head round it so that I understand it fully.
  • cuchuflete

    Senior Member
    Welcome to the forums Roger!

    Try listing the characteristics of the hair in the first sentence.

    The hair is: human, dark, glossy, long, clean, etc.
    "Dark" is just one of a number of characteristics that describe the hair.

    I'm not too thrilled by the explanation the book gives for the second example. There is a box. It is antique. It is made of ivory. both words describe the box.

    The big bad wolf ate the chipmunk. Both big and bad modify wolf. I suppose I could argue that bad modifies 'bad wolf', but I'm note sure that gives me much insight into the punctuation rule.

    I think we need to wait for one of our grammarians to explain it to both of us.



    Senior Member
    I think it has got to do with the fact that the adjectives modify the word right after it, while the comma stands instead of the word 'and.' Therefore the first sentence could be written: 'Her long and dark and glossy hair' - you're listing facts about a thing. It would, on the other hand, sound weird if you for instance said: 'She gave me an antique and ivory box.' In the last example it's hard to tell the exact meaning of the sentence; are you given an antique box and an ivory box, or are you given an antique ivory box?

    Did that make any sense?

    I hope I'm not way off centre, but that's how I figure out how to use commas correctly in that context.
    I think this means that the box was made from antique ivory but I agree it's rather ambiguous.

    My grammar lessons at school (Noah's Ark Primary) taught me that commas should be inserted after all the adjectives except the last. So -

    Mary looked a picture at her sister's wedding. She wore a beautiful, full length, flowing, peach-coloured, silk dress.

    The small, playful kitten had the most beautiful, long, soft, shiny, grey fur.

    roger mellie

    New Member
    English, UK
    Thanks for the replies guys. Christhiane, my confusion is the same as you point out. I mean would it be so incorrect to say, "She gave me an antique AND ivory box", meaning 2 boxes? If that is gramatically permissible then how am I meant to spot where listing commas should and shouldn't be used between modifiers?

    The only other example the book gives doesn't help much: "I prefer Australian red wines" This is, again, used to show that "I prefer Australian, red wines" would be incorrect. However as with the previous example, would it be so wrong for someone to tell you they prefer Australian and red wines??
    In the first example 'I prefer Australian red wines', 'Australian red' is the modifying adjective for wines. If you were to say 'I prefer Australian and red wines' then it would make the listener think that the 'red wines' could come from anywhere in the world, not specifically Australia.

    I prefer French white wines but I would never write that as 'French, white wines'. Nor would I say I prefer French and white wines since that would mean I have two preferences 1) French wines, 2) all white wines.

    I feel you will have to remember that there are always irregularities in grammar and that correct usage can only come with practice and experience.

    If you are a library user why not check out some other books on English Grammar? You can compare them with your (surprisingly) 'duff' Penguin Guide.


    Senior Member
    U.S. English
    I don't think a colon is used before a series introduced by a verb or a preposition. "One example is "her long, dark. . .

    I think Christhiane's suggestion is a good one. Also, if the noun and adj. are conceived as a unit, such as "Big bad wolf," or "Australian red wines," no comma is used.

    If you're describing two boxes, you would have to use "box" twice. I have an antique box and an ivory box.

    roger mellie

    New Member
    English, UK
    river said:
    I don't think a colon is used before a series introduced by a verb or a preposition. "One example is "her long, dark. . .

    I think Christhiane's suggestion is a good one. Also, if the noun and adj. are conceived as a unit, such as "Big bad wolf," or "Australian red wines," no comma is used.

    Thanks. I didn't understand why I was wrong to use the colon, but I'm sure I'll reach that page in my "duff" Penguin guide at some point. The reviews on Amazon said it was good as well.

    Anyway, I still can't see why it can't be a big and bad wolf so I'm not sure if that's the best example. If bad wolf can be one unit then why not glossy hair?


    Senior Member
    U.S. English
    You wouldn't say "Here comes the big and bad wolf," or "Here comes the Little and Red Riding Hood," or "There's the big and green house."

    But you could say "Her long and silkly blond hair fascinated me."


    Moderator: EHL, Arabic, Hebrew, German(-Spanish)
    US English, Palestinian Arabic bilingual
    This is a question I think I can answer. Please excuse any redundancies.

    First of all, we should not mix apples and oranges. The assumption here is that there is one box, one that is both antique and made of ivory. The example with one antique box and one ivory box is a different one altogether. In that case, you have to say "and" so the discussion about whether to use a comma or not is moot.

    Now, the reason that you do not use a comma is simply because you would not be able to replace the comma with "and" (bearing in mind that the meaning is still that there is one box). After all, the comma is meant to replace an elliptical "and," so logically you should be able to place the "and" right back in without jeopardizing the meaning or acoustic soundness of the sentence. Considering the other example,

    dark, glossy hair

    You can very easily say

    dark and glossy hair

    without changing the meaning or causing the phrase to sound strange.

    This does not apply to "antique, ivory box."

    Nor does it apply to "Australian red wines." You cannot say "Australian and red wines."

    The reason for this is that "ivory" and "box" are so closely related to each other as to almost "belong" together: "ivory" is more than a mere description; it identifies a particular category of "box" and sets it apart. Same goes for "red wine." Other examples:

    a big grandfather clock
    an easy biology test
    an amazing language forum :D
    an intriguing punctuation question :)


    a beautiful, generous girl
    an old, musty book
    a dark, cold, rainy night
    a long, complicated answer to the intriguing punctuation question :)

    I hope that helps.

    roger mellie

    New Member
    English, UK
    Thanks Elroy. Like someone said before, it's a matter of coming across these things before I will really understand, but your explanation seems spot on.