comma with coordinate adjective: when to use it and when not to?

Discussion in 'English Only' started by andrzejewskil, Feb 6, 2008.

  1. andrzejewskil Member


    I have started researching the rules of applying commas and came up to an unclear (to me) point of it. Here it is:

    The comma is used to separate co-ordinate adjectives; that is, adjectives that directly and equally modify the following noun. Two questions can be asked to identify adjectives as coordinate adjectives:
    1. Would the meaning be the same if their order were reversed?
    2. Would the meaning be the same if and were placed between them?
    • A positive answer to either of these questions is evidence that a comma should be placed between the adjectives:
      • In the dull, incessant droning but not the cute little cottage.
      • The devious lazy red frog suggests there are lazy red frogs (one of which is devious), while the devious, lazy red frog does not carry this connotation. ( wikipedia)
    Could anybody give me more examples of the sentences where commas are needed and where they are not?

    Thank you
  2. panjandrum

    panjandrum Occasional Moderator

    Belfast, Ireland
    English-Ireland (top end)
    It's really odd you should ask this because I came across something similar yesterday while browsing through guidance on comma use.
    HERE (see 8.34) the examples are:
    With commas:
    - short, swift streams
    Without commas:
    - short tributary streams

    There are also examples in my favourite BE punctuation guide HERE.
    With commas:
    - This is a provocative, disturbing book.
    - Her long, dark, glossy hair fascinated me.
    Try replacing the commas by and:
    - This is a provocative and disturbing book.
    - Her long and dark and glossy hair fascinated me.

    Without commas:

    - She gave me an antique ivory box.
    - I prefer Australian red wines to all others.
  3. Harry Batt

    Harry Batt Senior Member

    USA English
    My handbook for writers devotes 1/2 page of Index to the rules on commas. The trend is to eliminate commas. My grammar studies goes back to pre-WWII. I have had to adopt my rule of common sense. When writing a series of modifiers without commas I ask, "Could there be confusion?" If the answer is that it is confusing, I add the commas. Eg., "I get my computer open at 6 a.m. write a few email replies do some research then look at the news." The confusion is that the reader has to figure out where to pause. As the writer it would be necessary to add commas after a.m., replies and reseaarch.
  4. Loob

    Loob Senior Member

    English UK
    Hi andrzejewskil

    If you google co-ordinate adjective, you'll find lots of sites giving examples of sentences with co-ordinate and cumulative/hierarchical/non-co-ordinate adjectives. Here's one :)
  5. andrzejewskil Member

    Hi again,

    Here, for anybody who's been following this thread and been confused about co-ordinate adjectives, are the 2 examples that helped me grasp the idea. I have italicized and put in bold the words which made it happen:

    The pianist played a beautiful, haunting melody.

    “Beautiful” and “haunting” modify “melody” to the same degree, with no bearing on one another. You could just as easily say it was a haunting, beautiful melody; neither adjective is more attached to “melody.” To get a better idea of what I mean, here’s a case in which the adjectives modifying a word are not coordinate:

    The cold December wind chilled me to my bones.

    “Cold” and “December,” in this case, are know as hierarchical adjectives, because “cold” is really modifying “December wind” as whole. When you have hierarchical adjectives, they build on each other.
  6. whynottail Senior Member

    Hong Kong
    Your examples are inspirational.

    From views expressed by others, I can gather that adjectives of the same kind should be separated with commas and those of different kinds be simply grouped together without commas. This understanding explains your first example.

    As to your 2nd one, it shows how two adjectives of the same kind but without a comma can mean so differently from with a comma. Thanks for the marvellous examples.
  7. whynottail Senior Member

    Hong Kong
    Further to my post above, on closer examination, I am puzzled by this example given by panjandrum. Since long is about size and dark and glossy about colour/shade, there are two groups of adjectives, thus should the example be recast as-

    Her dark, glossy long hair fascinated me.
  8. panjandrum

    panjandrum Occasional Moderator

    Belfast, Ireland
    English-Ireland (top end)
    Her long, dark, glossy hair fascinated me.
    The example wasn't created by me, but it sounds perfectly OK.
    First, it's a good example of adjectives that can be separated by "and".
    Her long and dark and glossy hair fascinated me.

    Second, changing the order creates an unnatural sentence. The order of adjectives, as I understand it, requires "size" before "colour/shade".
  9. whynottail Senior Member

    Hong Kong
    The following are retrieved from the Corpus of Contemporary American English for sharing-

    (a) We talked about work. His. Mine. He wanted to know how Nellie's new job was going. About our boys. He told me about their Carrie, tall like him , dark long hair like Marcie.

    (b) Among the monks with beards down to their bellies was a young one, and I wondered how he had enlisted himself in this ghostly brotherhood. Demented, or a government employee, I decided. He had silky long hair, like a princess captive in a tower, and the sliding onyx eyeballs of a spy.

    (c) Berta had never been on a date and she rarely looked in the mirror. Mornings when she pulled her glossy long hair into a barrette, she remembered what her mother said once when Berta asked if she were pretty: " M'hija, you have beautiful hair. "

    (d) She stared at the barred window for a moment, at the dingy walls. She imagined her shiny long hair matted, and putrid rags wound around her wrists. The doctor looked at her and she nodded.
  10. panjandrum

    panjandrum Occasional Moderator

    Belfast, Ireland
    English-Ireland (top end)
    The "order of adjectives" is advisory, of course.
    It describes how native speakers normally order a series of adjectives.
    COCA has 102 instances of long dark hair, 3 of dark long hair.
    There is nothing ungrammatical about dark long hair - but it sounds odd, precisely because it is unusual.
  11. whynottail Senior Member

    Hong Kong
    Two observations-

    "Order of adjectives" is advisory, particularly for terms where there is a special bond between the adjective and the noun, like red wine.

    "Long" and "dark" belong to two different groups of adjectives, they need not be separated by a comma, whatever the sequence is.

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